NOAA approves Rhode Island’s marine spatial plan

I thought it was an auspicious day last month (July 22) when NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco joined Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee to recognize and applaud the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) as the first comprehensive marine spatial plan to be adopted into a state’s coastal zone program. Under the Federal Consistency provision of the Coastal Zone Management Act, the policies in the Ocean SAMP can apply to federal actions in federal waters such as identifying suitable areas for energy projects. Dr. Lubchenco added, “This plan takes into account all ocean uses for enhancing commercial, recreational and environmental goals. This plan is what President Obama envisioned in the National Ocean Policy, and it sets a great example for other coastal states.”

NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Governor Lincoln Chafee, after signing the Ocean SAMP approval document (Image RICMRC)

 I think that a key component of this plan was simply the gathering of information describing where important human use activities and ecological areas occurred. The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (RICRC), a group of appointed representatives charged with balancing economic considerations with environmental protection, recognized that the many cultural, social, and environmental areas within the Ocean SAMP study area merit protection. To this end, the Council designated portions of the Ocean SAMP study area as Areas of Particular Concern (APC), which include: areas with unique or fragile physical features, or important natural habitats; areas of high natural productivity; areas with features of historical significance or cultural value; areas of substantial recreational value; areas important for navigation, transportation, military and other human uses; and areas of high fishing activity. The ability to map these areas was central to the success of this process.

Rhode Island Ocean SAMP map showing renewable energy zone (green) overlap with navigation routes and areas of particular concern (Image RICMRC)

 The next step that I see is for Rhode Island to continue to coordinate with their neighbors (New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut) to develop a plan that addresses the priority issues that have been identified for that region (natural hazards, healthy ecosystems, marine transportation, energy). Rhode Islandhas already signed an MOU with Massachusetts agreeing to coordinate planning for offshore renewable energy in an identified “area of mutual interest,” using the Rhode Island Ocean SAMP as a guide. Another step in that direction was the recent launching of a regional data portal by the Northeast Regional Ocean Council. Developed to enhance regional ocean planning efforts, the new Northeast Ocean Data Portal contains regional spatial data on human activities, natural resources, and jurisdictional information forNew England’s coasts and ocean waters. These data are available to the public and can be viewed online and downloaded for use in GIS platforms.

I think the lesson from Rhode Island’s recent mapping exercise is that while individual states can (and should) develop plans for their state waters, the planning process will inevitably reveal the need to coordinate with neighboring states and federal agencies to address broader regional issues. On the West coast, the WCGA has already brought together regional partners to address issues of climate change, renewable energy, seafloor mapping, sediment management, marine debris, water quality, sustainable communities, and integrated ecosystem assessments. I agree with the approach taken on the East coast and am excited the WCGA is preparing to host a West coast regional data portal meeting this winter. This meeting will lay the groundwork to make West coast ocean data more accessible to aid regional planning for these shared issues and priorities and is intended to bring together state, federal, tribal, NGO, and academic data managers to formalize a “human data network” and make recommendations about how a regional data portal can make use of existing data infrastructure.

The West coast covers a large and diverse geographic region with distinct ecological and cultural differences that we need to consider as we plan for coastal and marine uses, but we can learn from one another as we tackle these complex issues.

If you would like to learn more about the West coast regional data portal meeting, please contact me!