Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Planning Gets Underway

“We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

This statement, uttered in the tribal blessing that kicked off the first official Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body (MidA RPB) ocean planning meeting this week, acknowledged the significant undertaking and importance of the MidA RPB’s work. Established this past April, the MidA RPB – made up of federal agency representatives with expertise on ocean issues, state representatives from NY, NJ, DE, PA, MD, and VA and a representative of the federally recognized tribe in the region – is tasked with developing, with stakeholder and public input, a plan to guide the region’s future ocean protection and development.

For many of us, the ocean is comprised of the waves, crying gulls, and the jumping fish and dolphins we see from the beach, surfboard, or the deck of a boat. What people may not realize is that our oceans are increasingly busy places. We ship goods from port to port, supply our restaurants with fresh seafood, open businesses that serve tourists and visitors, and harness energy found offshore. Our oceans are governed by a myriad of agencies, often with little communication among them. Without better planning and coordination, growing industrial use will lead to “ocean sprawl” and jeopardize the food, jobs and recreation we rely on our oceans to provide.

Regional ocean planning can identify ocean areas that are appropriate for industrial use and where habitat and wildlife need protection; it can help protect our ocean health and provide for sustainable use. However, no one said that generating this “wet equivalent of what we’ve done on shore for years,” as one MidA RPB member stated, would be easy. The Mid-Atlantic is a diverse region and there are a lot of interests and uses represented at the table.

At their inaugural meeting, the members of the planning body discussed a draft charter, goals and initial plan for stakeholder and public engagement. They provided opportunities for stakeholder input on each of these topics. It’s clear from the discussion that the members are becoming more familiar with all the various work out in the ocean waters. As a member of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command stated, “I’m thirty years in uniform and I’m being exposed to things I never thought I’d be involved with … I’m learning.”

There are many different interests at play within the region and between the states, but all recognize that the Mid-Atlantic’s ocean waters are “economic engines and cultural treasures” and noted that this process could help achieve better decisions for ocean health and humans. We know that many of the region’s jobs, for example those in our fishing communities and in the tourism and recreation sector, rely on clean coastal waters and beaches and healthy and abundant fish and wildlife. Offshore wind is a burgeoning industry and regional planning offers a way to expedite that process while safeguarding the surrounding environment.

NRDC is urging the MidA RPB to state that it will develop a plan that will protect and restore the health of our regional ocean and coastal ecosystems. Through a regional assessment of the ocean’s health and uses, we need to identify areas important for spawning, breeding, feeding and migrating ocean fish and wildlife. The plan should ensure that the various impacts of ocean uses – alone and in concert – do not threaten these areas and the system’s health that we all depend on.

NRDC is working with other environmental and recreational groups to press for a stakeholder body to provide regular, meaningful input to the MidA RPB and for ways that the public can engage directly – from webinars to meetings to commenting on goals. All of us – from surfers to fishermen, small business owners to conservationists – have important views and a role to play in plan development.

The Northeast Regional Planning Body is developing a draft plan by 2015; hopefully, the MidA RPB can match this schedule so that we can begin using this much-needed tool as soon as possible. We don’t need to know everything before we begin planning – regional ocean plans are meant to be iterative and updated as we learn more about uses and the ocean area.

As its next step, the RPB intends to synthesize the comments from this first public meeting into their drafts and release the documents for public comment. This will be a key opportunity for all of us to show that we, too, are up to the task of tackling the challenging work of regional planning and being stewards of the ocean for this and future generations.

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