Recently, the Northeast Regional Planning Body (RPB) released a draft of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan, a groundbreaking document that will guide future decision making about how we manage ocean resources in New England. The RPB, comprising representatives from each New England state, six federally recognized tribes, nine federal agencies, and the New England Fishery Management Council, was tasked with the development of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan – an effort that has been underway since 2012 and a product of President Obama’s National Ocean Policy.
With a public comment period open through July 25, ocean users may review the plan and submit comments online, which the RPB will take into consideration before completing and submitting its final draft to the National Ocean Council this fall for approval.
Conservation Law Foundation has long been a champion for ocean planning as a way to bring science and stakeholders to the table in a comprehensive and ecosystem-based approach to ocean management. CLF has worked to ensure strong conservation measures within the state ocean management plans in Rhode Island and Massachusetts – which were the first state-based plans in the country – and we’re proud that New England is continuing its ocean leadership by producing the nation’s first regional ocean plan.
The draft Northeast Ocean Plan has three stated goals:
- Maintaining healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems
- Ensuring effective decision making
- Improving compatibility among past, current, and future ocean uses
We know how important it is that the plan lives up to its commitments. The final plan should be as strong, clear, and comprehensive as possible. Here’s our take on the draft’s strong points and where we see opportunities for a clearer demonstration of the plan’s commitment to strong conservation outcomes, agency commitments for implementing the plan, and the involvement of ocean users in decision making.
Elements of the Regional Ocean Plan
The Regional Ocean Plan is a nearly 200-page document with five chapters, covering:
- The need for and function of ocean planning.
- The unique context for ocean planning in New England, and a description of the new online data portal, a keystone feature of the plan that will include easily accessible maps showing key information and up-to-date scientific data on everything from marine mammal migration patterns to shipping routes to fishery data.
- How federal agencies are committing to take action under the plan within 10 ocean use areas (from fishing to national security, transportation, and more).
- A summary of how the plan will be implemented.
- A section covering six science and research priorities intended to fill the known gaps regarding our understanding of the ocean and how it is used.
Identifying and Protecting Important Ecological Areas
One of the most important conservation elements of the Regional Ocean Plan is the identification and protection of Important Ecological Areas (IEAs), which are habitat areas and species critical to ecosystem function, resilience, and recovery. The RPB formed an Ecosystem Based Management Work Group, consisting of marine scientists and ocean managers, which developed a framework to identify Important Ecological Areas. The group specified five key components:
- Areas of high species productivity
- Areas of high biodiversity
- Areas of high species abundance, including areas of spawning
- Areas of vulnerable marine resources that are particularly susceptible to natural and human disturbances
- Areas of rare marine resources such as endangered species and other demonstrably rare species
While the development of this framework is an important first step, the draft plan’s actions on Important Ecological Areas can and must be much stronger. The final version should include a commitment by the RPB to identify Important Ecological Areas by the end of 2016, incorporate them into the data portal, and describe clear agency guidance and commitments to conserve these areas to the fullest extent consistent with applicable law from incompatible uses that may harm them.
Further, a comprehensive understanding of the vulnerability of our regional ocean ecosystems to climate change is imperative to this plan’s success. To that end, the draft plan identifies as a research priority work to characterize changing environmental conditions particularly resulting from climate change. To assist in this effort, we urge the RPB to commit to building a comprehensive climate change information base as a component of the ocean data portal.
Strengthen and Clarify Federal Agency Commitments
The draft plan describes federal agency commitments in overly broad language and with a number of caveats (such as stating that they will collaborate better and use better data “to the extent practicable”). This lack of clarity will make it extremely difficult to measure whether or not agencies have followed through on their commitments.
The final plan should clarify agency commitments to improving ocean health and management using strong language, and by explaining specifically how agency practices will change as a result. For example, the plan should commit agencies to updating internal policies, establishing new working groups, and developing new interagency agreements, where appropriate, to ensure the plan is effectively incorporated into existing regulations.
Strengthening Stakeholder Engagement
Across the region, diverse voices from a variety of sectors have a critical and often personal stake in ocean management decisions. Ocean users, along with federal entities, states, and tribes should have a seat at the decision-making table.
Throughout the drafting process, the RPB held occasional forums and workshops to engage with ocean stakeholders, however, this engagement did not go far enough in ensuring that people on the water and working to safeguard the health of the oceans were equal partners in the planning process. By this fall, the RPB should create a formal stakeholder liaison committee that will support and inform the plan going forward, and provide the opportunity for ongoing regional dialogue among ocean users.
The release of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan is historic, charting a way forward for better decision making for the future of our ocean and all who depend on it.
One of those voices can be yours: Submit your feedback on the plan in the online portal available here by July 25, 2016, or click here to sign on to our Action Alert asking the RPB to include strong conservation measures in their final plan.