• Agencies prepare to carve up coastal waters (Sign on San Diego)

    Unprecedented zoning process will be based on ecosystem approach

    From: Sign on San Diego

    By: Mike Lee

    State officials decided last week that a hotly contested set of marine protected areas will take effect in the nearshore waters of Southern California on Jan. 1.

    That planning process split the region into pro-fishing and no-fishing camps since it started in 2008, but it pales in comparison to the scope of a federal initiative that’s starting to take shape as a priority of the Obama administration.

    The coastal and marine spatial planning process, launched by executive order in 2010, seeks to account for the full range of ocean uses, from wave energy and oil extraction to shipping and recreation. It’s supposed to span broad ecosystems instead of relying on the traditional sector-by-sector approach to regulating ocean activities.

    The blueprint will extend the debate about marine uses from the three-mile limit of state waters to 200 miles from shore as part of an unprecedented national effort to balance a growing list of competing interests. It’s never been done on the national level in the United States, though a few states and other countries have created similar plans.

    Think of them like ocean zoning maps covering nine regions of the country that say what activities are best suited for specific areas. If they work, they could give industries more confidence about investing in certain spots and conservationists clarity about which regions are designated for boosting marine life.

    “It’s important to get ahead of the curve as demands for space in the ocean increase, but also to move deliberately to make sure all the relevant information is assembled and everyone is included,” said Karen Garrison, at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “This is about keeping the ocean healthy and making sure it continues producing the benefits we depend on into the future.”

    Momentum for ocean-use maps has grown along with concern about the ability of the world’s seas to handle pressures for ocean-based food, energy and other necessities. The California Current Ecosystem, which runs along the West Coast of the continental U.S., is among the most highly productive saltwater areas on Earth. It’s also one of the most difficult to manage because tens of millions of residents live within 50 miles of the shore and use the ocean in countless ways.

    “At its foundation, coastal and marine spatial planning is very simple, practical and sensible,” said Charles Wahle, acting senior scientist for the marine spatial planning program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The idea is to empower communities to think through determining the future of the ocean.”

    The planning effort is expected to include all levels of government and a wide swath of people with a stake in the sea. It will take between two and five years to develop the regional plans, according to NOAA, which is taking a lead role in the project.

    The multiagency National Ocean Council is preparing to release a how-to guide for spatial planning as soon as this fall that will jump-start the process. In the interim, the concept is being greeted with skepticism and support in the West Coast planning region of California, Oregon and Washington.

    Planners don’t have authority to create new marine protected areas, just to highlight important conservation zones — a point that should ease tensions between those who want more protection for marine life and those who want to preserve access for industry and recreation.

    The idea has backing from various politicians, interest groups and scientists, even though some of them aren’t confident it will work as hoped. For instance, it’s not clear the federal government will spend the money necessary to create ocean-use blueprints nationwide.

    “The intent of it is appropriate — we need to make sure that we set the ocean aside for sustaining itself and for the uses we already have that are sustainable,” said Don Kent, president of Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a nonprofit science group on Mission Bay. “But at the same time, it’s a tremendous effort. In the real world, does it have real use?”

    He’s afraid the multiyear process will delay projects such as an aquaculture operation he proposed for the waters off San Diego County. When the zoning is done, he said new fish farms or other kinds of developments still would face project-specific reviews.

    Kent also is concerned that the final maps will be outdated on arrival. “How do you plan for the technology … when it hasn’t even been invented yet?” he said.

    Others suspect the planning project will turn into a bureaucratic black hole with few tangible benefits. “To expect streamlining at the federal and state levels is probably a pipe dream,” said Damien Schiff, an attorney who deals with fishing issues for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

    As for how the planning process compares with the state’s mapping of no-take reserves, Schiff said that will take months or years to determine. “It’s a little unclear at this point whether what NOAA is planning will approach the sort of anti-productive-use attitude that we have seen at the state level with the marine protected areas,” he said.

    Planning zones don’t include a predetermined amount of conservation area and the nation’s offshore waters are large enough to accommodate a wide variety of uses, said Wahle, the NOAA scientist.

    “There is no implied outcome of this other than sustainable ocean management,” he said. “I am not concerned that there will be whole sectors with no place to sit when the music stops.”

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