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Making Waves: Episode 105 (Oct. 25, 2012)

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.  I’m Troy Kitch.

Back in the early years of the 20th century, the eastern shore of Virginia was a popular place. This 80-mile stretch of coast along the Atlantic Ocean was a duck-hunting destination, tourists went there, and there were lots and lots of bay scallops that supported a thriving shellfish industry.

But in the 1930s, this all changed. Multiple hurricanes struck and a wasting disease killed the eelgrass in the region that many creatures – including the scallops – needed to survive.

In the decades that followed, things didn’t get much better. And this was a surprise, because the barrier islands along the eastern shore were protected – over the years, most of the islands were purchased for conservation by The Nature Conservancy and state and federal agencies. But after decades, the eelgrass beds still hadn’t returned. So the bay scallop never returned, either.  Our guest today, Laura McKay, the program manager of Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program, picks up the story. I spoke to her recently by phone.

“It turned out that eelgrass has a very poor distribution mechanism, and so it hadn’t returned because, even over 70 or 80 years, the eelgrass seeds hadn’t drifted down there. They’re very heavy and they just sink when they’re released from the reproductive shoots.”

So humans had to provide a little help. With funding from the Coastal Zone Management Program, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science painstakingly carried over eelgrass seeds from the York River and planted them along the eastern shore. 

“The 200 acres that they’ve planted with seed has now spread to about 5,000 acres. And because of that, we now have enough habitat that we can reintroduce the bay scallops that had been there, so we’re bring back these resources and then we also kept an eye on the economic end of this, this being a rural and relatively poor coastal community on the eastern shore.”

So the Coastal Zone Program also invested in canoe and kayak launches and created a seaside water trail to promote ecotourism. And they’re working with the aquaculture industry to boost shellfish harvesting in the region – an industry which is benefitting from the cleaner water that’s a result of the conservation and protection work that’s gone into the area.

Today we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of what some call the most important national coastal legislation you've probably never heard of. It’s called the Coastal Zone Management Act, and it’s this act that makes projects possible like the eelgrass restoration along Virginia’s eastern shore.

“That’s one of the bright ideas that Congress and President Nixon had in 1972 when the Coastal Zone Act was formed. It’s just brilliant that in one piece of legislation, it charged states with looking not only at environmental protection or not only at economics, but both of them together and I think that that was perhaps an idea well before its time in 1972, but I’d like to think is coming more mainstream today – the idea that we all begin to understand that you can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment, and you can’t really have a healthy environment without a healthy economy. So they really do go hand in hand and this CZMA is, as far as I know, the only piece of legislation that recognizes that and promotes that.”

The CZMA, as it’s know in short, is run by NOAA's Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. And it provides for management of the nation's coastal resources, including the Great Lakes. The CZMA set up two big programs, the National Coastal Zone Management Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Estuarine reserves serve as field laboratories to provide a greater understanding of estuaries and how humans impact them. And today, there are 34 coastal management programs around the nation that aim to balance competing land and water issues in the coastal zone.  Now you may wonder why we have this special legislation for our coastal areas. What’s so special about the coasts and Great Lakes? I put that question to Laura.

 “Well the coast is where more than half the population lives and where a huge proportion of our gross national product is created. And so it’s a very special place that needs a lot of careful management in order that we can sustain these places where we live and produce food from the ocean, recreational areas … you look at the population distribution across the country, especially those images of lights that are on at night, you can see how the density of people is really along our coasts. So that’s really where it’s happening, and that’s where we really need to be taking really good care of where we live.”

What makes this challenging is that there are so many different people in so many different groups -- state, federal, local, nonprofit, business – who, in each state, play a big role in how coastal areas are developed or protected or otherwise managed. Laura said that the Coastal Zone Management Programs set up by the CZMA bring all of these parties together to find balance.

“Coastal management is a really complex topic. It involves all different sorts of coastal resources and different sorts of coastal uses and the way our federal and state governments are arranged is that we tend to have agencies for particular purposes. For instance, we have agencies that focus on energy production or we have agencies that focus just on wildlife, and so what the Coastal Zone Management Act does is provides an opportunity for states to create a comprehensive approach to coastal management and to pull together the different federal, state, and local governments.”

For the Commonwealth of Virginia, Laura said there’s a department of conservation and recreation that deals with nonpoint source pollution; there’s a department of game and fisheries that deals with inland fisheries, there’s a marine resource commission that deals with underwater lands, fisheries and marine habitats; and on and on. All these different agencies have different responsibilities related to the coast.

“In Virginia it’s been fantastic to have a coastal management program that creates a forum for those agencies and our coastal local governments that also implement coastal laws and policies – for instance, local wetlands boards in Virginia actually issue wetlands permits and dune and beach permits. So having this coastal program creates that forum to bring them all together to the table to help us ensure that issues don’t fall through the cracks and that we aren’t leaving out anything, and a place where we can resolve conflicts. One agencies policies may conflict with another’s at times and so, again, this creates that forum to let us resolve issues and having the approval from NOAA for a coastal management program makes us eligible for the federal funding that lets us operate the program.”

The eelgrass restoration project on Virginia’s eastern shore is a good example of how the coastal zone program pulls everyone together to tackle big coastal issues. Laura said that after the eelgrass was restored, it became clear that this region of shoreline, lagoons, and barrier islands needed a new management plan moving forward:

“to ensure there was adequate space for both conservation and restoration of natural habitats like oyster reefs and eelgrass beds, but also that there’s room for the shellfish aquaculture industry to grow and thrive, and for recreational activities and ecotourism activities to grow and thrive. So the key I think is really in talking with the local people and understanding what their needs and desires and goals are, and then working together to negotiate a plan that meets everyone’s needs. It’s not easy, and I’m not saying we’re done with it, but I think it’s the nature of coastal zone management programs to be able to go in and pull those different parties together to solve problems and maximize our ecological and economic benefits.”

Thanks to Laura McKay, program manager for Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management Program, for taking the time to talk with us about her program and for explaining what the Coastal Zone Management Act is all about.

Happy birthday to the Coastal Zone Management Act. Here’s to the next forty years.

That’s it for this episode. If you have questions about this podcast, about our oceans and coasts, or about NOAA’s National Ocean Service, you can reach us at You’ll find us on Facebook and Flickr at USOCEANGOV; that’s all one word. And we’re on Twitter. You can find us there at noaaocean  -- that’s also all one word. And we hope you visit online at, where you’ll find shownotes and links that accompany today’s episode.

You’ve been listening to Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. We’ll be back in two weeks with our next podcast.