In the wake of President Barack Obama's July executive order establishing a National Ocean Council, the eyes of environmentalists, researchers, and other interest groups throughout Washington state and beyond are turning towards the sea, with the realization that it remains the planet's last frontier, where a vast trove of resources remains unexploited — and, in the view of many, a vast array of life forms remains inadequately protected.
To some, the primary problem is a dearth of knowledge about what happens on and below the 71 percent of the earth's surface that consists of oceans. The closer one gets to shore, the more intense the range of often competing human uses of the sea becomes. With all their maritime traffic, recreational users, fisheries, and pollution sources, the waters that lap the shores of western Washington constitute a case in point.
A new concept known as marine spatial planning (MSP) is playing a key role in advancing that understanding, and figures prominently in the Obama administration's emerging national policy. State legislation that took effect in June defines the concept as “a public process of analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of human activities in marine areas to achieve ecological, economic, and social objectives.”
“It's basically putting everything we know about Puget Sound on maps that anyone can look at, understand and offer input,” said Robin Stanton, Washington state media relations manager for the Nature Conservancy, explaining the approach in local terms. The conservancy is using a $700,000 Environmental Protection Agency grant to study and improve estuarine systems in seven western Washington deltas, from the Nooksack in Whatcom County to the Skokomish in Mason.
Mentioning one area of study, she said that, in theory, tidal turbines for generating carbon-free energy “should go where the current is strongest — those are all rocky habitats beloved by divers and fishermen, and important for fish. There are seven permits for pilot sites in Puget Sound. Six of them are in places that have been identified as high-priority habitat.”
The most tangible result of MSP is an interactive, color-coded chart that depicts the ocean surface and floor, as well as the activities and living communities that demand space everywhere in between — and sometimes bump up against each other.
A Nature Conservancy release describes MSP as “a public policy process,” and the concept forms the crux of the state legislation. State senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), the bill's primary sponsor, said MSP “gets in front of the user conflicts in the ocean. A few years ago there was a proposal for a wind farm off of southwestern Washington. The developer was quite a ways into the permitting, and then the crabbers stood up,” noting interference with critical habitat for young crab. Other interest groups raised concerns, too.
“Because we didn't have any holistic way of looking at this, the project died,” Ranker said. “If we had had a marine spatial plan in place, the developer would have known where the best places to site the [wind farm] plan were.”
Among other things, the new law instructs an existing interagency team to recommend a framework for conducting MSP and integrating it into existing planning efforts. That process will not require any new state expenditures, but the meat of the statute, which calls for the creation of a comprehensive, MSP-based marine management plan for the state, can be implemented only if non-state funding — $4.5 million of it — finds its way to Olympia for that purpose. Those funds would have to come from the federal government, local jurisdictions, and/or private donors.
Given the state government’s financial straits, the bill, as eventually passed, even omitted a $62,500 Department of Commerce expense that the original bill would have drawn from state coffers. The law instead assigns that relatively small sum, too, to non-state sources which have yet to materialize.
Ranker, who in private life “consults on national ocean policy and coastal community development in Washington, D.C.,” according to the Senate Democrats' website, noted that many disparate agencies — port authorities, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Department of Ecology, and so on — have a stake in marine issues, “and never shall they talk [with each other]. This bill changes that, and in a very positive way.”
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