As the days come to a close on my WCGA Sea Grant fellowship, I am a little teary eyed looking back on two exciting and intense years with the Oregon Governor’s Natural Resource Office and the Oregon Dept. of Land Conservation and Development, Coastal Management Program. It’s been a long strange trip with many curves and bumps in the road, to be sure, but through my ring side seats for Oregon’s marine spatial planning process, I ultimately learned what I came here to learn; the circuitous process by which science and information translates to policy and decision making.
I arrived in Oregon fresh out of graduate school at Cal State Monterey Bay, where I studied seafloor mapping and benthic ecology. Working at the scale of grains of sand was really interesting and I learned a lot about how fish and invertebrates use soft sediments, but I wanted to look at a bigger landscape; policy development and ocean planning. I caught glimpses of the mythic world of policy through the California Marine Life Protection Act, but I wanted to experience the whole complicated thing, and the WCGA fellowship seemed to be the perfect way to do it.
I was really fortunate to arrive in Oregon when I did. They were just beginning a marine spatial planning process for wave energy and were looking for recruits (i.e. fresh blood) to help record and synthesize public comment and help with GIS work. I was stoked! It meant I got to go to every stakeholder meeting on the coast and see how all these competing interests were being addressed. Hearing all their stories helped me realize that, regardless of their background, everyone was coming to the table with a passion to see the ocean protected and healthy (They just wanted to go about it in different ways.)
A huge part of the marine spatial planning process was the use of decision support tools (DST) to help engage stakeholders and provide accurate spatial data to decision makers. Simply enabling stakeholders to view and analyze data in meetings provided a common foundation that everyone understood. It allowed individuals to investigate prospective areas for development and feel engaged in the process. That’s not to say that everyone agreed with the data or the plan. Oh goodness, no! But seeing the maps and hearing concerns enabled advisory groups and policy makers to refine their information to better reflect realities on the ground. This two way dialogue was critical to the successful adoption of the plan.
Recognizing the utility of these tools, and wanting to apply them at the regional scale, led me to the other big aspect of my fellowship. The creation and development of a regional framework for increasing access to ocean and coastal data to better inform regional coastal management, policy development, and ocean planning. It started as an idea, echoed by West Coast stakeholders, cobbled together from funding proposals, strengthened by a unanimous vote of need at the National Marine Spatial Planning workshop in Washington DC (see post: Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning – The future is now), and formalized at a workshop the WCGA held in December of 2011. There seemed to be no question that the need existed, but the question was how to go about developing such a system in an era of tough budget cuts. In recognition of this reality, we decided that it would be best to invest in low tech solutions to better connect and support the existing state and federal systems in place. But we needed a group to lead this effort…
The Regional Data Framework ACT was formed to guide the development of the human and technical networks, and in their voluntary efforts, I see the same passion for smart ocean management that guided stakeholders in the Oregon MSP process. The work is just beginning with many foundational steps to be laid, but I hope that in the next year we will be poised to make contributions to pressing West Coast ocean health issues such as adaptation to sea level rise, understanding patterns of ocean acidification, and tracking patterns of marine debris. The ACT just released their formal work plan guiding their work over the next 3-5 years; you should read it here and let them know what you think.
My fellowship has been tremendously rewarding; from experiencing firsthand the struggles and triumphs of working with stakeholders in a marine spatial planning process to learning about the latest GIS technologies, it provided me with all the opportunities I could ask for (and then some). Two years was a perfect amount of time to get my bearings, survey the landscape, and figure out what I wanted to accomplish with the fellowship but now I am ready to move on and apply the things I’ve learned. I am fortunate to be continuing work with the RDF ACT as they move into the next critical phase of their work, and maintain the relationships I’ve developed over the past two years. If it weren’t for the good natured group of fellows, mentors, and colleagues the fellowship would have felt overly daunting at times, many thanks to this group for their support and advice.
I hope that in the future the WCGA will offer similar fellowships to young people interested in how science and policy interact on the coastlines of the West Coast. It’s not always easy or pretty, but it’s a good lesson for the next generation of marine scientists and policy makers that will not be forgotten.