By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — The ocean has always been viewed as this endless abyss, the last frontier. Though largely unexplored, is it possible that the ocean is becoming too crowded?
In the past decade the world has seen a tremendous population explosion and increasing demands for resources to feed all the mouths at the table. And while conflicts for space and resources is nothing new for the history books, the extent to which the ocean is used and who, or what, is actually out there has surprised scientists, resource managers and policymakers alike.
“The oceans are becoming more crowded,” Sally Yozell, director of policy and senior advisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said during the 11th annual Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium held May 16 at the University of Rhode Island’s Feinstein campus. She added that new uses of ocean spaces are being added on top of traditional uses, asking, “How do we balance those uses with safeguarding the environment?”
“We knew virtually nothing. We knew a little about the circulation and stratification, but nothing about the habitat,” said Grover Fugate, director of the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), referring to the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP). The state’s offshore waters have been the focus of a two-year study to figure out what is actually out there, to preserve existing uses and environmental health while also paving a way for future development.
Fellow colleagues joined Fugate and Yozell as part of an international host of resource managers at the symposium, to discuss various methods of marine spatial planning, share what they were finding out in the waters of their own respective coastlines, and talk about how they were managing multiple human activities such as marine transportation and fishing while preserving a healthy marine and coastal environment.
“Marine spatial planning is both a process and a product,” said Jake Rice, from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “It engages people at all levels and is a guide on how uses can coexist with a healthy environment. It allows prosperity we all want to see.”
There isn’t one right way to manage spaces, Rice said, because each place is different and, when decisions are made, not everyone is going to be happy. The important thing is that everyone felt the process was fair. “You can’t say outcomes are a win-win because not everyone is going to feel that way,” he said.
The symposium was held in Rhode Island mainly due to the large steps this small state has taken to produce a plan for managing ocean spaces. The Ocean SAMP is the first of its kind in the nation, and is being viewed as a model for many coastal communities worldwide.
The Rhode Island Ocean SAMP study area includes portions of Block Island Sound, Rhode Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, and is being eyed for potential offshore wind development. The effort has produced myriad maps of the various activities, from fishing and transportation to sailing and wildlife migrations, showcasing a checkered landscape of limited space with competing uses.
“Without the Ocean SAMP, developers would propose to develop anywhere,” said Jennifer McCann, co-principle investigator on the project and extension leader of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island. She added that the Ocean SAMP is a management tool not a promoter of one special interest.
“The benefit of the Ocean SAMP is that it has provided all the information that most any developer would need and therefore accelerates the development process,” Grover said. “The research has been done, the conflicts have been dealt with and a lot of consensus has been reached. We will have three years of critical data sets while other places start from scratch.”
The key elements of the Ocean SAMP that other practitioners all agree are critical for successful management are a comprehensive database and stakeholder engagement that adds critical information of cultural and historical relevance.
Doug Harris of the Narragansett Tribe spoke about how important stakeholder engagement was not only for his tribe but also for other interested parties.
“Tribes in the U.S. most often don’t get a front seat in the process,” he said, noting what an important experience it was to be involved and contribute oral histories that share a place beside science. “Fishermen are from the same community. They may come from different sectors, but we’re all going to sink or swim in this. What will the future be for my grandchildren and theirs?”
“There are many compelling reasons for marine spatial planning,” said Paul Gilliland, from the Marine Management Organisation in the United Kingdom, stressing the importance of local engagement to meet the needs of different types of coastal communities.
It’s a developmental process, he said, because marine spatial planning is new so mistakes will be made. But planning ahead and keeping an open dialogue will keep everyone moving forward. “We have a lot to learn from one another and need to keep talking,” he said.