Sweeping up California’s plastic bags

Plastic bags are easily incorporated into natural systems, and often end up in the ocean, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California's statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing that cycle (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

Plastic bags often end up in rivers and oceans, where they can cause substantial harm to wildlife. California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a step toward reducing this problem (photo courtesy of Surfrider Foundation).

If you’re an environmentalist, California may be the ideal place to live. Not only is the state filled with extensive and diverse natural wonders, but California has traditionally been at the forefront of environmental conservation movements. Despite this tendency, it has taken years of failed legislation, and much work-around and energy from local organizations, for California to finally pass a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. The bill (SB270), which was introduced earlier this year by Senator Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, was passed by the Senate on Aug. 29 and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on Sept. 30.

The ban didn’t come out of the blue. California, for all its environmental leanings, uses approximately 13 billion single-use plastic bags every year. Numerous cities and counties have passed local plastic bag bans in recent years. San Francisco became the first city in the nation to ban bags when it enacted a law in April 2007. Malibu, Manhattan Beach and Fairfax followed suit within the next year, and by 2014, 88 California municipalities have been covered by plastic bag bans (the most recent was Davis, which banned plastic bags last October, effective this past July). Plastic bags, along with other plastic debris, are cluttering urban areas and natural ecosystems around the world, and can cause significant damage and death to wildlife. Rather than fight an unending battle attempting to clean up plastic litter, local governments have seen the benefit of simply removing single-use plastic bags from the equation.

The bag ban bill has had to fight opposition from several angles. In fact, a previous plastic bag ban attempt was introduced by Padilla last year, but was defeated by three votes. The main opposition comes from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents U.S. plastic bag manufacturers, and claims that a bag ban will result in significant job losses. Others worry that the bag ban will unfairly affect lower-income residents by imposing a 10 cent fee for paper bags. Senator Padilla and proponents of the ban remain unperturbed, citing the overwhelming successes of the numerous local and county bag bans over the past few years, and resident support for those bans.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is  a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

The West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP) Marine Viewer is a new tool that will allow users to examine West Coast debris cleanup data in the context of physical parameters (rivers, streams and ocean currents, shown here) and human demographics and government policies (e.g. population centers, bag bans, foam policies). The Marine Viewer will be released in early November.

Don’t expect plastic bags to become rare collector’s items anytime soon, though. The ban won’t go into effect until July 1, 2015 for grocery stores, and July 1, 2016 for smaller convenience stores. And it doesn’t cover things like produce bags and plastic dry-cleaning covers.

California’s statewide plastic bag ban is a crucial step toward reducing the production of plastics that can end up in our waterways and in the ocean, but unfortunately our ecosystems already contain multitudes of plastics. One of the upcoming features of the new WCGA West Coast Ocean Data Portal is a Marine Viewer tool where marine debris cleanup data can be overlain with other datasets, including city and county bag bans, river and stream watersheds that may carry plastics to the ocean, and coastal surface currents that may affect plastic movements and deposition along the coast. In fact, one of the main goals for the oceanographic products that I’ve created during my Sea Grant fellowship has been to provide information on oceanographic movements that can be used in conjunction with debris cleanup datasets, to determine how plastics may move along the West Coast, and where they might land.

In the end, hopefully California’s plastic bag ban won’t be just another environmental law in our state’s long history of conservation movements. We should use it as key step toward urging our society to reject our ingrained single-use, throwaway mentality, in favor of preserving and reusing the resources we have.

The iconic "plastic bag video" from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California's recent statewide plastic bag ban, although not all disposable plastic bags will be phased out by the law.

“There’s so much beauty in the world” – The iconic “plastic bag video” from the 1999 Academy Award winner American Beauty may someday be a relic of the past, thanks to California’s recent statewide plastic bag ban.


Back to School: The U.S Ocean Policy Report Card and UNCLOS

A recent U.S Ocean Policy Report Card gave the U.S low marks in its efforts to support and implement national and international policies to strengthen our ability to manage ocean resources effectively. The assessment covered how well the Nation did with respect to

  • National Support and Leadership: C
  • Regional, State, and Local Leadership and Implementation: A-
  • Research, Science, and Education: C
  • Funding: D-
  • Law of the Sea Treaty: F

The report card reads like that of a struggling student, meaning well and trying hard, but ultimately failing to make the changes necessary to succeed. In particular, the Joint Ocean Commission, who conducted the assessment, highlights the lack of congressional support for the President’s National Ocean Policy (NOP) and for the ascension to the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite shortcomings in many areas, the Commission does give credit to increased Federal agency coordination since the roll-out of the NOP and praises the work of regional ocean partnerships, like the West Coast Governors Alliance (WCGA), in taking leadership roles, engaging stakeholders and achieving on-the-ground success — giving us an A-, not too shabby!

The lowest grade given, an ‘F’, was for the inability of the Senate to vote on ascension to UNCLOS. This international treaty defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. Despite broad support from the business leaders, conservation groups, and security interests, the US has never signed onto UNCLOS, and it is now being debated (again) in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
UNCLOS came into force in 1994 and to-date 162 countries and the European Community have joined in the Convention. The Treaty protects National security interests, secures sovereign rights to vast areas of the ocean and seabed (each countries 200 nm Exclusive Economic Zone), furthers maritime commerce, and promotes ocean resource conservation. UNCLOS provides the framework for International ocean conservation efforts to address the decline of species and habitats, prevent, reduce, and control pollution, and deal with the growing complexity of managing marine debris. As a party to  UNCLOS, the US would serve in a leadership role to help prevent the further decline of ocean ecosystems.

This is an important international treaty that has positive implications for nearly every aspect of maritime activity. In my opinion, it’s a win-win for the U.S; simultaneously asserting it’s sovereign rights while acknowledging the importance of international cooperation in dealing with global issues. I think the US has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and commitment to ocean health by signing on to UNCLOS as soon as possible.

King Tides on the West Coast

Most people these days know about the effects of climate change. Every day the news reports about the change in weather patterns, the increase of extreme events, changes in snowpack, the retreat of glaciers. The list goes on and on. For the half of the US population that lives on the coast, we hear about sea level rise and coastal inundation and what we might expect for the future.

Still, does the average coastal resident really understand how rising sea levels and coastal inundation will impact them?

(Left) A sidewalk is lost to this King Tide near Rotary Park, Olympia WA. Photo by TallJoyClan, (Right) Water creeps up to mid-sign during a high tide event in La Conner WA. Photo by ConwaySuz

Washington, Oregon, and California are taking proactive steps to make sure that coastal residents, planners, and decision makers alike have the chance to see what sea level rise might look like in their own backyards. It’s called the King Tides Initiative, and every winter brings the opportunity to visualize what a rise in sea level might mean for communities and infrastructure along the West Coast.

The concept began in 2009 in Australia by Phil Watson, the Principle Coastal Specialist of

Park in San Francisco during a large king tide event. Photo by sirgious.

the New South Wales’ Environment Department. They used the term “king tide” to define the high tides that occur when the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon is in alignment. Green Cross Australia continues this initiative, and recently launched a disaster resilience portal Queensland that connects climate awareness with disaster preparedness, working with the research community and advanced Facebook apps to empower people to take tailored steps to address hazard exposure.

These king tides, which take place during the winter along the West Coast, create higher than usual high tides that inundate roads, wetlands, water systems, and more. It’s a stunning preview of what we might experience regularly in the future as a result of rising sea levels.

Seawater almost spilling over this seawall at Alki Beach WA. Photo by dcsdiving.

West Coast states created their own King Tides Initiatives, with regional and local public outreach and education campaigns that ask coastal residents and visitors to photograph high tide events and share them on the photo sharing site Flickr®. By documenting and sharing photos, participants are helping create a living record of vulnerable areas of the coast. Because most photos are licensed under creative commons, they can be accessed and used by anyone. This makes king tide photos a resource for anyone, from teachers to planners to scientists, to communicate the impacts of climate change in a tangible way.

To learn more about the King Tides Initiative in California, I spoke with Marina Psaros, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator for the San Francisco Bay National Estuary Research Reserve.

What has been the biggest impact you’ve seen from the California King Tides campaign?

The king tides initiative is such a simple, powerful way to start a conversation about coastal hazards.  We’ve been able to reach a lot of people who don’t know much about coastal flooding and potential climate change impacts.  We recently held an exhibition of some of the photos at the California Academy of Sciences, and it was amazing to see

Home is inundated in Cairns North Queensland. Photo by Witness King Tides.

people’s immediate, visceral reactions to the images.  Concepts like “tidal inundation” and “sea level rise” are really abstract for most people, but a picture of water slamming up against a well-known landmark is immediately clear.

How can these pictures help us prepare for the future?

These images help engage people on the coast in a conversation about climate change and sea level rise. By participating in king tide events, coastal residents are helping to create a living record of areas that are vulnerable to flooding, and an online resource that can be used by anyone to communicate about coastal hazards. Creating new awareness through social media and other outreach, like the California Academy of Sciences photo exhibition, encourages people to think more proactively about the future of their communities. It also helps decision-makers visualize the impacts sea level rise could have on places where we live, work, and play. 

Can anyone get involved with King Tides?

This hotel on the beach in Yamba New South Wales is lost to a king tide. Photo by Witness King Tides.

 If you have a camera and can get to the coast, yes! Just check your state’s website for king tide events in your area, head out to the coast to take pictures of the king tides, and upload your images to Flickr®. While you’re on the Flickr® site, be sure to check out the rest of the photo pool.  We also encourage people to use these amazing pictures for their own communications – the images are available under a creative commons license. You can also get more information on the initiative through this recent Thank you Ocean podcast: http://www.thankyouocean.org/tag/king-tides/.

NOAA tides gauges and NASA satellites have been recording a global rise in sea level for 150 years.  This rise is linked to a number of atmospheric and oceanic processes; including changes in global temperatures, hydrologic cycles, coverage of glaciers and ice sheets, and storm frequency and intensity. Although high tides are a naturally occurring event, it’s a preview of water levels that climate models show might be a new “normal” in 100 years.

This biker makes his way around the seawater in Mill Valley near Stinson Beach CA. Photo by Yanna B.

The motivation to start talking about hazard mitigation and adaptation is king tide photos of washed out roads, flooded homes, and shrinking beaches. We’ve got a lot to prepare for. Perhaps king tides are nature’s way of giving us a head start.

If you want to be part of the King Tides campaign in your state or province, please visit the following websites to see the schedule of tide events:

Washington King Tides (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/ipa_hightide.htm)

Oregon King Tides (http://www.climateadaptationplanning.net/kingtides/)

California King Tides (http://californiakingtides.org/)

British Columbia King Tides (http://www.livesmartbc.ca/connect/kingtidephotos/)

Australia King Tides (http://www.greencrossaustralia.org/our-work/witness-king-tides-a-community-photography-project.aspx)

The Real Cost of Aquatic Invaders

I was interested to read recently that ballast water standards adopted by New York to prevent the spread of invasive species have prompted concern among several Great Lakes Governors, who say that the regulations will halt shipping in the St. Lawrence Seaway and jeopardize thousands of jobs. The new standards, which are more stringent than the Phase One standards proposed by the United States Coast Guard, require vessels transiting through New York waters to install ballast water treatment systems in order to protect the fragile ecosystems in New York and in the Great Lakes.  In 2009, the right of NY to establish standards via the Clean Water Act process was upheld in a New York Court of Appeals suite brought forth by the shipping industry.

The new standards have far reaching effects as all ships entering the Great Lakes need to pass through NY waters and must therefore install the new treatment technologies to “inactivate” biological organisms and pathogens. Systems inactivate organisms using a variety of methods including filtration, UV irradiation, deoxygenation, electrolysis, ultrasound, and something ominously called chemical biocide. Unfortunately, due to a relatively small number of “real world” tests of system performance in a variety of environmental and vessel conditions, there remains a high level of uncertainty with regard to treatment effectiveness.

Ships emptying ballast water at the Port of Oakland . CREDIT: Monaca Noble, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Examples of aquatic invasive species presently found on the West Coast include the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis), zebra mussels (genus  Dreissena), cordgrasses (genus Spartina), and  Undaria pinnatifida. West Coast states have undertaken multimillion dollar projects to control or eradicate these aquatic invasive species.It is widely recognized that aquatic invasive species wreak havoc on our natural systems and infrastructure. By out competing native plants and animals, modifying habitat, and disrupting food webs, their effects can be seen in coastal ecosystems worldwide. What is also known is that invasive species cost the US billions of dollars annually in damage to coastal infrastructure, eradication and control efforts, and disruption to ecosystem services.

The West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health (WCGA) recognized the threat of invasive species to the ecological, social, public health, and economic integrity of the region’s marine resources. The WCGA action plan acknowledged the great work already underway in the region on ballast water through the Pacific Ballast Water Group which acts as a forum for states to coordinate their ballast water policies. On the West Coast, California has had an effective ballast water management program in place since 2000 which has focused on performance standards as well as ballast water exchange. It has served as a model for the West Coast and, unlike the fears raised by the Great Lakes, has not resulted in decreased port activity.

In addition, the WCGA formed the Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team focused on eradicating and preventing the spread of this invasive cordgrass. While not typically spread through ballast water, non-native Spartina dominates newly restored tidal marshes, changes the hydrology of estuaries by modification of tidal creeks and navigational channels, displaces thousands of acres of shorebird habitat, drastically reduces biodiversity, and decreases available intertidal habitat for commercial shellfish production.

I wanted to talk to someone who knows whether ballast water treatment standards will be effective on the West Coast to preventing the spread of invasive species. Mark Sytsma, the Director of the Center for Lakes and Reservoirs at Portland State University and former co-chair of the Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team, was gracious enough to answer some of my questions.

Do you think the NY ballast water standards are the answer to preventing the spread and introduction of invasive species in NY and on the Great Lakes?

Mark: Standards are not the only answer to preventing new introductions, [ballast water] treatment is. Standards are [only] a way to direct and evaluate the treatment effectiveness. Unfortunately, no one knows what discharge standards are protective for our water resources. How many new introductions are acceptable? At this point, we don’t know the answer to that.

Are many of the invasive species on the West Coast introduced through ballast water?

Mark: Yes. Look at the 2004 Lower Columbia River Aquatic Non-indigenous Species report on our website about introductions to the Columbia. There is similar literature on SF Bay. It’s hard to imagine how some species could have gotten to the West Coast from Asia, except by hitchhiking in a ballast water tank.

Would ballast water treatment work on the West Coast?

Mark: I think everyone thinks that treatment is the answer. The question is how to treat [ballast water] quickly and effectively. There are a number of systems available and the California State Lands Commission has a report that describes the effectiveness and status of [treatment] systems.

What efforts has the Spartina ACT done to prevent the re-introduction of Spartina?

Mark: The funding that the WCGA provided for the Spartina action plan last year was used to develop environmental documents for Spartina treatment in Humboldt Bay and to do control of S. patens in Siuslaw estuary in Oregon. Both of these could be considered prevention, because infestations from these two sites threatens to spread to other areas on the West Coast. Certainly, those of us in Oregon see the Humboldt work as critical to preventing spread of Spartina to Oregon.

Thanks to Mark I was able to gain some insight from one of the experts on the West Coast. For me the questions raised by the Great Lakes Governors highlight the perceived tension between economic growth and ecological preservation. However, as we have seen in examples from the West Coast and around the world, failing to prevent and/or control aquatic invasive species is costly to infrastructure, jobs, and the environment. It is an investment in the future health of our economy and oceans that I think is worth making.

Japanese Tsunami – The Global Aftermath

The 9.0 earthquake centered 80 miles off of the Japanese coast was felt by the whole world, not physically, necessarily, but through our kinship as a global community. We were rattled to see such devastation on our computer and television screens, and West Coasters went to the shorelines to watch the ocean ebb and surge as the tsunami reached our coast. For some port towns, it came with fury, jostling boats and tearing up harbors, causing one fatality and millions in damage. For others towns, like Port Orford, OR, it was captivating to see tides in fast-forward, but it was an unsettling reminder that the Cascadia fault line that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to northern California is about 80 years overdue. Next time, it might be all of us.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

Today, almost six months after the Honshu quake, Japan is still reeling. The world has offered its hand in humanitarian efforts, as well as in scientific expertise for the subsequent nuclear crisis. People struggle to rebuild and survive. Food, water and electricity remain in short supply.

What became abundant? Debris. Of all shapes and sizes, from household items, to cars, to whole buildings. When the water receded, anything suspended went along with it back into the Pacific Ocean. This means, in no uncertain terms, that remnants of Japan are headed our way.

 NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#1, 8/31/2011)

NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#1, 8/31/2011)

This brings one question to mind, and that’s “Are we ready?” First, are we ready to act when, or if, this massive amount of debris hits our coastline? Do we have any sense of the magnitude or high-probability areas? Could any of that debris be radioactive?

Most scientists think we have some time before any debris hits. However, there is no clear answer how the North Pacific Gyre will speed up or slow down that movement. In the time it takes to cross the big blue, and the mismatched timing of the Fukushima incident with the recession of the water, NOAA and others consider it “highly unlikely” that Hawaii or the West Coast will have to deal with radioactivity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for monitoring radioactivity.

 Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. The first bits of debris are expected in a year. (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml, 8/31/2011)

Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml, 8/31/2011)

The general consensus is that most of the debris will reach the West Coast in about two years, with debris protruding from the water (e.g. fishing vessels) likely to turn up first because of exposure to the prevailing winds. Other debris may remain in the depths of the Pacific never to be seen by most of us again. To date, I’ve really enjoyed picking up beach treasures from Japan (glass floats and interesting bottles), but I’m not sure I’d be so thrilled coming across remnants of cars or houses.

While some of us have the opportunity to go to Japan and help in the rebuilding efforts, others can do the world a favor by taking part in the clean up on this side of the Pacific.  Whether this means signing up for the SOLV Beach clean up every year, participating in events like the California Coastal Cleanup Day and Washington Coast Cleanup, or just bringing garbage bags with you to the beach, we can all do something.

NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311/ 8/31/2011) NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311/ 8/31/2011)

West Coast-wide organizations, such as the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health (WCGA), addressed marine debris in the 2008 Action Plan. Action 1.4 notes that the three states will establish baseline estimates of marine debris off the West Coast, and support policies to meet reduction goals through recycling, trash maintenance, and litter laws. Members of the Marine Debris Action Coordination Team and the forming Marine Debris Alliance, with folks at EPA Region 9, the U.S. Coast Guard and others, are on regular calls trying to track this debris plume and figure out the “when, where, and how much.” There is a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot going into getting prepared. This includes a NOAA initiative called “Ships of Opportunity” program, which hires non-research vessels traveling in that direction to search for the head of the debris plume. The thought is if they can deploy buoy sensors at the head of the plume, scientists will be able to track the progress of the debris to the West Coast. Who knows? This may be another happenstance opportunity to learn more about Pacific Ocean currents.

Will we be ready when it’s our shoreline that’s quaking? I know there are a lot of communities starting to think along the lines of tsunami preparedness, but what about our families and friends? I have no disaster plan. I have no kit. Do you?  Granted, not everyone is in imminent danger of a tsunami, but the damage from an earthquake means long-term threats for everyone’s way of life. I’m not advocating that everyone run to the store for their dehydrated food kit, or build a survival shelter in their backyard, but I know that I could benefit from knowing a little more and taking some steps to prepare.

I guess the bottom line for me is, let’s learn from this. Let’s keep our Pacific neighbors in our hearts and minds. Let’s get ready, in every way possible, to prepare for the aftermath of the damage already done, and prepare for events to come. I think we can all agree that it’s only a matter of time.

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml; 8/31/2011)

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml; 8/31/2011)

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!

Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning – The future is now

President Obama recently released the National Ocean Policy that outlines a new way of doing business that focuses on a tool called Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) to achieve national objectives. CMSP is defined as a comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean and coastal areas. CMSP identifies areas most suitable for various types of activities in order to reduce conflicts among uses, reduce environmental impacts, facilitate compatible uses, and preserve critical ecosystem services to meet economic, environmental, security, and social objectives. While this is a scary and uncertain concept for many people, I think that it boils down to a very old idea – communication is good. At its most basic level, the CMSP framework attempts to provide a mechanism for state, federal, and tribal partners to talk to each other and to stakeholders when making decisions to avoid conflicts between ocean users, industry, and the environment.

Existing ocean uses. Conflicts or opportunities? (Photo: Massachusetts Ocean Partnership)

To kick off this sea change (pun intended!) in ocean policy, the federal government hosted a National CMSP workshop in Washington DC. I was sweating buckets in the humidity, as managers, tribal representatives, and stakeholders got together and starting talking about how CMSP might work in their part of the country. I was excited to see that while the majority of participants were enthusiastic and recognized the need for CMSP, there were concerns raised about the “top down” nature of the National Ocean Policy and the need to strengthen the ability for each region to determine its own objectives and priorities. I think that the West Coast Governors’ Agreement (WCGA) along with other regional partners have a big part to play in helping to articulate these regional objectives.

West Coast breakout session at the National CSMP Workshop. (Photo: Hallenbeck)

The West Coast has been engaged in this type of planning for quite awhile already. California has had experience planning for marine protected areas and is now in the process of designing a data portal that will facilitate sharing of spatial information amongst stakeholders and agencies. Washington recently passed their CMSP Bill, which I believe is a critical first step in providing a mandate for state agencies to coordinate activities and engage in comprehensive planning. Oregon is currently planning for ocean wave energy development in their territorial sea and has gone through an extensive data gathering and stakeholder process to incorporate this new ocean use with the least amount of conflict with existing uses (e.g. fishing, telecommunications, recreation) and ecological resources.

I know the horizon is bright for our nation’s oceans, if we can just keep talking to one another…