It’s Time to Zone the Seas

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Amy Mathews Amos

by Amy Mathews Amos

With the Deepwater Horizon oil spill doing long-term damage to commercial fishing, wildlife, and tourism, perhaps the bubble of our ocean fantasies has finally burst.

We’ve always thought of the seas as free, wild, and infinite. A place we go to get away from rush hour traffic and office cubicles. We picture waves rolling under the bow of a boat, sails full, sun bright. Or white breakers crashing on lonely stretches of beach. To most of us, the ocean seems unimaginably big. Vast. Endless.

But it’s not.

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The tar balls washing up on Gulf of Mexico beaches remind us that it’s getting pretty crowded out there. And not just with oil rigs. Walking the shore, we can’t readily see the fierce competition underway for pipeline routes, mining sites, sewage lines, communication cables, fishing fleets, and more. But in reality, things are bumping into each other much more often at sea, whether it’s oil and water, cables and corals, or ships and whales.

Often literally colliding: A 90,000-ton container ship can kill a 100-ton right whale when it hits it. Ship collisions are the biggest source of human-caused death for these endangered cetaceans. The second biggest is entanglement in fishing gear.

To bring order to the seas, it’s time to take our cue from the land.

For decades communities have used zoning to reduce land-use conflicts and protect property values. In 2008, Massachusetts became the first state to apply this idea to the ocean. With 400 years of seafaring behind it, Massachusetts entered the 21st century struggling to balance modern demands like fish farms, sand mining, and wind farms with declining fisheries and thriving tourism. With the state’s passage of a comprehensive ocean “zoning” law, it now has a framework to identify which offshore areas are appropriate for which uses, and to flag potential conflicts in advance. The Obama Administration wants to do the same thing in U.S. ocean waters and the Great Lakes.

Called “marine spatial planning,” this concept is rooted in conservation. Australia pioneered it in the 1980s to protect valuable coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves in its world-renowned Great Barrier Reef National Park.

Protecting special places in U.S. waters isn’t new either. Just as our national parks preserve special areas on land, national marine sanctuaries protect resources like the sunken wreck of the Civil War ship USS Monitor off the North Carolina coast, and the country’s northernmost coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks of the Gulf of Mexico.

But the idea of ocean zoning goes far beyond conservation. The Obama Administration sees it as a way to promote economic development too. Identifying areas suitable for various economic, industrial, or conservation uses in advance can help reduce conflicts and facilitate compatible uses.

This includes energy development, which increasingly drives how we use the ocean. In Massachusetts, conflicts over the location of liquefied natural gas terminals, tidally-driven energy facilities, and wind farms fueled change. At the national level, intense pressure for offshore oil and gas drilling leases adds to the urgency.

The catastrophic BP spill in the Gulf forces the question: what areas should be off limits to oil and gas drilling, and where can we develop more sustainable, renewable energy sources so these disasters don’t happen in the future?

Not surprisingly, the idea of flagging parts of the ocean for specific uses raises hackles. To many, this simply doesn’t fit the romantic image of a free ocean. Recreational fishing interests in particular are opposed to anything that might restrict fishing access.

Dr. Elliott Norse, president of the nonprofit Marine Conservation Biology Institute and a leading thinker and supporter of marine spatial planning, likens the idea of a free and open ocean to a “sacred value.” According to psychologists, sacred values are concepts that defy rational decision-making, based solely on strong emotion. No promise of practical benefits can easily sway someone away from a sacred value.

But clinging to outdated notions of what we want the oceans to be could do irreversible harm. We’re placing tremendous new demands on the seas and need a more thoughtful approach to managing them.

The time for marine spatial planning has come. If there was any doubt before, surely those doubts should have sunk with the Deepwater Horizon.

© Blue Ridge Press 2010

Amy Mathews Amos is an independent environmental consultant advising conservation groups and others on marine conservation issues.


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