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Diving Deeper: Episode 18 (November 04, 2009) —
What is marine spatial planning?

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I’m your host Kate Nielsen.

Today’s question is….What is marine spatial planning?

Marine spatial planning is a relatively new concept that is similar to land use planning. Marine spatial planning is the process used to make smart ocean-related decisions and policies. The identification of marine managed areas and the ability to determine their boundaries are main components of marine spatial planning.

To help us dive a little deeper into this question, we will talk with Brian Smith on marine spatial planning – what it is and why it is important. Brian is a marine spatial planner with the NOAA Coastal Services Center. Hi Brian, welcome to our show.

BRIAN SMITH: Hi Kate, it’s great to be here today.

HOST: Brian, marine spatial planning is a fairly new concept for me. Can you define this for us a little bit further?

BRIAN SMITH: Sure. Marine spatial planning at its most simple is the allocation of marine space. So if you’ve got a big, open ocean out there, how is it that you divide that up into different pieces so that you can figure out who’s going to use one piece versus another. You can also kind of think about it in managing ocean space. You are looking at things like the ecology of that area, social issues that you have, economic issues that you have, and you want to take all of those into account. So this is sometimes described as an integrated process, a multi-objective process, and an area or place-based process.

HOST: So is marine spatial planning used just for conservation planning purposes?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, to a degree that depends on how you define conservation. Many people would look at conservation itself just as wise use of resources. So, good marine spatial planning is providing a foundation for sustainability of services that you have in the ocean and people are looking for the ocean to provide them with certain things whether it’s fish or commerce. In order to sustain that and conserve it, you need to plan. And in that way, many people would broadly consider it conservation, but I think a lot of people immediately when they hear conservation would think of marine protected areas for biodiversity and although that’s one thing that certainly marine spatial planning has been used for and still is used for, it’s a broader definition, I think, than just ecology or biodiversity protection. It’s things like energy, where do you put offshore energy sites, where would you put maybe a commercial aquaculture facility, so it includes many things.

HOST: Great. It sounds like marine spatial planning is a rather complex topic. What might be some of the issues with this?

BRIAN SMITH: It is a complex topic Kate. You’ve got a couple of issues that you need to consider here. One is conflicting uses. You’ve got multiple stakeholders and jurisdictions that are competing for ocean space. You’ve also got to realize that the ocean is a finite resource – it’s vast, but not endless. There’s many things that we’re taking from the ocean and many things that we depend on it for and we kind of expect those resources to continue to flow. But at the levels that we demand, they may not exactly do that. We need them to be sustainable and that’s the other issue that we would want to consider in marine spatial planning is sustainability. So you’ve got many generations to come and your good planning now means that you’ll have these resources continue in the future.

HOST: So it sounds like planning will be critical to sustaining our ocean resources for future generations. Who all is involved in marine spatial planning?

BRIAN SMITH: Kate, there are many people involved in marine spatial planning – too many to name just in a short answer. To try and be brief, we do have things like federal governments, state governments, tribal can be included in this list. You also have to consider that there are many other regular folks that need to be consulted when you’re making decisions here. So you’ve got non-profits that are at the table, citizens that are at the table, all playing a big role. It’s not just a government thing, it’s not just a conservation organization thing, or just people on the street…it’s everybody.

HOST: Brian, you mentioned marine managed areas. What does this mean?

BRIAN SMITH: It can mean several things. Generally when someone talks about a marine managed area, it’s an area that you’ve designated for one reason or another to protect or manage. Protection can come in many forms and you’ve got several different examples out there of types of marine managed areas that we have in the United States. We’ve got things like national marine sanctuaries, you’ve got national seashores, national monuments, national parks, fishery management zones, etc., I can go on, there’s a large list, many different types of marine protected areas and marine managed areas and those are just a few.

HOST: Who creates these marine managed areas?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, good question and we sort of touched on it a little bit earlier in one of the other answers and it really boils down to who has jurisdiction or who has authority in an area. It could be a state government, the federal government, part of a territorial sea, a tribal government, or a local government – any of those could potentially have authority in an area and create a marine protected area.

HOST: What are some of the benefits of marine spatial planning?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, there’s many and if we’re talking again about future generations and we’re looking forward, we need to protect what we have now to make sure that future generations are able to reap the same benefits that we have the ability to right now. So they fall into three general categories usually and that would be – your economic and social benefits, your environmental benefits, and the simple benefit of an integrated planning process where you’ve got a bunch of people on board.

So an example of maybe your economic or social benefit is that you’re making an efficient use of space and that you’re minimizing conflicts. So if you can think about efficient use of space like a small city apartment versus one that you find in the suburbs. There’s often very interesting ways that people make use of small spaces.

From the environmental standpoint, you’re identifying areas of particular importance or sensitivity for protection, and that’s a benefit that you’ve thought about. These areas that are very sensitive, you’ve tried to set them aside so that you protect them for the future and you can also assess and reduce your cumulative impacts over time. So it may not be a problem to permit a certain use one time, but by the time you’ve permitted it ten times, you start to have an influence, a negative influence. So you can take care of that with proper planning and foresight.

And the integrated planning process part of it, it does clarify for the public that everybody has bought into a vision. And that moving forward, we all have signed off on what we’re going to do, and it alleviates some conflicts in the future if you move forward with a plan that people had a chance to talk about.

HOST: Brian, who ultimately makes the decision regarding how we use or designate an area of the ocean?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, we’ve raised a number of complexities in and around managing natural resources in general, and then for marine spatial planning specifically. This is another one of those challenging questions and the slippery answer is that no one and everyone at the same time. To explain what I mean by that, it ultimately again boils down to who’s been given jurisdiction by law – who is it that has authority in that area and that’s where the decision will be made.

You’ve got multiple groups that are there representing multiple different agencies and interest groups whether they’re divers or commercial fishermen or surfers or recreational fishermen, whether they’re people representing the energy industry – there’s many different people who can be at the table. For example, the conservation community may push for an area to be protected, but NOAA or National Park Service or Fish and Wildlife Service may ultimately have the authority to designate that area with a certain sort of protection. So, who ultimately makes the decision varies depending on the area that you’re talking about and what type of management you’re doing and what type of protection you’re doing.

HOST: Thanks for that example. What is the role of the National Ocean Service in marine spatial planning?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, as we have talked about there’s many different entities and National Ocean Service plays one part. One of the things that we do here at the NOAA Coastal Services Center as part of the National Ocean Service is play a supporting role to provide people with information. So that information can take the form of helping people determine where marine boundaries are so you can figure out on one side of this boundary is state waters and on the other side of that boundary is federal waters, and provide that information in a standardized and easily accessible way. You can also provide access to many other forms of data that people are going to need in order to make decisions whether its data and information on what type of bottom is in an area or what type of fish are in that area, what type of shipping lanes might run through it.

This is not a role that NOAA can play by itself, obviously there are many partners, some that I mentioned earlier that work closely on the data access and marine boundaries and that can be people like the Minerals Management Service, who has control of assigning leases for oil and gas or offshore renewable energy exploration; Fish and Wildlife Service; National Park Service; as well as local and state, even tribal governments have a role that is played in marine spatial planning and National Ocean Service is there to support and work with the rest of these partners to get things done.

HOST: Brian, we’ve talked a little bit so far today about marine boundaries. Why do we need these areas? Why do we need these boundaries?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, there’s multiple levels of offshore rights that could include international, national, state, regional, and private, and it’s critical to know who has ownership or jurisdiction over a particular area. If you don’t know that, there are many issues that can arise.

One example is emergency response. So, say you or I has an accident this weekend and we’re off the coast of South Carolina. Somebody calls 911. They need to know if your accident occurred in state waters, in federal waters, if it’s the state of South Carolina versus the state of Georgia – who is it that’s going to respond to that. And in order to make those decisions, one of the things that’s central is making sure that the people that are looking at it, know where a boundary is and can make that determination quickly and easily. Before we can place any restriction or conservation or protection and begin new management efforts, we need to know where the boundaries are and who’s responsible for what.

HOST: So it sounds like knowing who has ownership or jurisdiction over a particular area is really important for understanding our need for marine boundaries. How are marine boundaries represented or shown visually?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, it’s not as easy as it would be on land obviously to go out and draw a line. You’re in the water. So what do you do? You can’t plant a flag there, you don’t have a road, there are no ways to put signs anywhere, and therefore, most of what you have in the ocean world is electronic. You’ve got digital boundaries and people have them on their GPS units or on whatever other electronics they might have on a boat or so that you can look at them on maps. And you’ve got them represented in that way which obviously is slightly different than what you’ve got on land, but just as effective if you know where to go and look.

HOST: So, we have boundaries to help outline marine managed areas, which you talked about and defined those areas for us a little bit earlier. How do we visualize all of the issues that you’ve mentioned so far today to really do the planning that is so critically needed?

BRIAN SMITH: Well visualizing the issues, we can do that today on the Web. So, we’ve created a Web-mapping tool here at the Coastal Services Center called Legislative Atlas. And what Legislative Atlas is built to do was essentially show you where boundaries are. So you can look and see where state waters start and stop and where federal waters start and stop. You can look at a specific point on the map and figure out what laws apply at that spot.

So if I’m a manager in a state and I want to know – looking at a permit application that I have in front of me – who needs to be consulted, I will have all of those laws at my fingertips using Legislative Atlas.

HOST: Thanks Brian for this background on marine boundaries. In addition to marine boundaries, you mentioned marine data and information as another key for ocean-related decision making. Can you expand more on this marine data need?

BRIAN SMITH: Sure. There is a tremendous need for data as we’ve discussed. It’s a complicated issue and process when you’re going through marine spatial planning. You’ve got a lot of different people at the table, a lot of different interests. And one of the ways that we’re trying to address that is we’ve put out a tool called the Multipurpose Marine Cadastre. All a cadastre is it’s like a survey map or a public record, what you would have for taxes to figure out who owns what part of a piece of property.

The tool that we’ve developed, the Multipurpose Marine Cadastre, has a bunch of different information in it – anything from the marine boundaries that we’ve discussed to the marine managed areas are in there, types of marine infrastructure like pipelines and platforms, wrecks and shipping lanes, we’ve got habitat and biodiversity information in there, types of marine geology are in there, and all sorts of human uses that you can think of. So this Multipurpose Marine Cadastre tool, it’s essentially a comprehensive map now, you’ve got a large information system that provides you all sorts of access to different data sets that you need in planning and we did this in cooperation with the Minerals Management Service. It’ll be a great tool for us to use not only in things like alternative energy siting, but commercial aquaculture sites, anything you can think of in marine planning, you’ve got a set of information now, a tool that provides you that information in an easy and accessible way.

HOST: Brian, can you provide an example or a little bit more information of how marine spatial planning supports alternative energy siting or development that you mentioned in your last answer?

BRIAN SMITH: Yes, and what I was thinking of when we were talking about the tools and specifically with the alternative energy siting is that you’ve got a lot of different things out there in the water and under water that you’ve got to take into consideration when you’re going to site something like a wind farm. You need to know how deep the water is, you need to know what’s on the bottom, you need to know if it’s a common area for shipping that’s a fairway or a shipping lane that you’re going to have commercial ships going through often. Is it something that fishermen are constantly dragging nets through or an important area for that?

So, the state of Rhode Island has done a great job being proactive at collecting a tremendous amount of information for habitats and species. They’ve got a lot of things already identified, so that when they move forward with industry, trying to plan where wind farms are going to go, they’ve got a lot of information already at their fingertips to help figure out where they can successfully put offshore energy like wind farms.

HOST: Thanks Brian for all of this great information and these helpful examples to define marine spatial planning for us. Do you have any final closing words for our listeners today?

BRIAN SMITH: Well, first of all, thank you very much for the opportunity. I think this is a very important topic and it’s an issue that going to I think be heard more and more – people talking about marine spatial planning. The ocean is, as we said before, it’s not unlimited, it’s a finite space and the more planning we can do the more wisely we’ll use that space.

HOST: Thank you Brian for joining us on today’s episode of Diving Deeper and talking more about marine spatial planning and why it is important.

That’s all for this week’s show. Please tune in for our next episode on oil spills.