Priscilla Brooks and William Adler: Sea change: Mapping the final frontier

Priscilla Brooks and William Adler

Massachusetts coastal waters are facing tremendous pressure from a myriad of proposed new uses – most of which were unimagined just five to 10 years ago.

A healthy ocean for future generations depends on how we choose to manage these proposals today.

The open ocean frontier in Massachusetts waters has often been compared to “the wild west.” Wind and wave turbines, fish farms, cobblestone and sand mining, gas pipelines, and electricity cables: all are seeking a place in the coastal waters off Massachusetts.

Where do we put it all? And how do we choose what use goes where without damaging our environment and the natural beauty of our ocean while keeping room for the keystone maritime businesses that have long been a part of the Massachusetts seascape – boating, lobstering, angling and commercial fishing?

It is time to get out ahead of the ocean development gold rush and figure out how and where we can capitalize on all the opportunities the ocean holds for food, recreation, transportation and energy while protecting the sensitive ocean environment and underwater habitat.

To do just that, the Massachusetts Legislature introduced and approved the Massachusetts Ocean Act which Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law on May 28, 2008. Under that act, Massachusetts has embarked upon a first-in-the-nation effort to create and comprehensive ocean management, or zoning, plan for the waters that extend from 1,500 feet off the low-tide line to the edge of the state’s jurisdiction – about three miles out.

In order to develop the best possible ocean plan to manage this precious public resource, state officials need to hear and understand the ideas and concerns of all ocean users and the public. Over the next few weeks state officials will complete a series of 18 public listening sessions – sessions in Plymouth, Norwell and Weymouth were recently held – and soon will post a dedicated website that will take public comments throughout the plan development process.

While the listening sessions will give state officials a good cross section of public and business input, scientific information will lay the foundation for the success of the management plan that will be created.

To that end, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs has teamed up with the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership to develop an enormous database including information on the biological and oceanographic characteristics of our ocean waters as well as the social and economic factors connected with our use and enjoyment of these publicly owned ocean resources.

In-depth research is now underway to determine the best ways to piece the plan together with careful consideration for impacts on ocean wildlife and habitat; renewable energy resources; sediment management; fisheries; recreational and cultural uses; and transportation, navigation, and infrastructure issues.

As a public-private partnership, which includes industry, conservation, science and governmental interests, the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership is well positioned to help with this effort. How important is this work? The partnership has brought together stakeholders like the two authors of this piece who often find themselves on the opposite side of issues.

For the first time in the nation, a state is comprehensively examining the ocean waters in their jurisdiction and trying to determine what uses go where, how they can coexist while protecting the ocean environment so dear to the citizens of the Commonwealth. Massachusetts ocean waters and resources belong to all of us.

A draft ocean management plan is expected by June 2009 at which time there will be an extensive opportunity for public comment. It is imperative that, as residents and ocean users, we all participate and take ownership in the development of this exciting, new ocean management plan.

Priscilla Brooks is the director of ocean conservation at the Conservation Law Foundation. William Adler of Marshfield is executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.