July 21, 2009

Controversy Arises Over New Ocean Zoning Plans

The head of the agency overseeing federal ocean research services said Monday that wind turbines, fish farms and other pressures on the nation's oceans are increasingly sparking conflicts with more traditional activities such as shipping and recreational boating and must be more carefully planned out, The Associated Press reported.

The nation should take cues from Massachusetts, the first state to create a comprehensive planning map for its ocean waters, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco.

Lubchenco said that while a similar map for the nation would be more daunting, state waters extend out just 3 miles compared to 200 nautical miles for federal waters.

She told AP they are seeing more and more conflicts between the emerging uses and the old uses.

Lubchenco said offshore-liquefied natural gas facilities are one new use. But Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass. and others criticized a plan to build an offshore LNG berth in Mount Hope Bay near Massachusetts and Rhode Island, arguing that LNG tankers would pose a hazard to commercial and recreational boat traffic.

The proposed plan is safe, according to the LNG company, which says the offshore berth is meant to ease fears of tankers approaching more densely populated areas.

Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's mission is to conserve and manage coastal and marine resources.

The nation needs to adopt "a more holistic, thoughtful approach" when it comes to ocean planning, not just to minimize conflicts but to acknowledge there are legitimate new uses for ocean waters, according to Lubchenco, the NOAA's administrator.

"Across the board we are seeing much more intense use of oceans in almost every single dimension, while oceans in general are becoming seriously depleted and degraded because we have not been the best at our stewardship responsibilities," she said.

She sits on President Barack Obama's special Ocean Policy Task Force created to develop a framework for effective coastal and marine spatial planning, which according to a June 12 presidential memo should include an "ecosystem-based approach that addresses conservation, economic activity, user conflict and sustainable use."

Marine spatial planning refers to the process of determining which kind of activity should be allowed in which parts of the oceans, including which portions of the oceans should have single or multiple uses, while still protecting fragile marine ecosystems.

Better planning, with the help of extensive public hearing and comment, could help minimize conflicts in the future, particularly as developers seek to place wind farms or tidal energy projects in deeper waters farther from shore, Lubchenco said.

The nation's first proposed offshore wind farm, the 130-turbine Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, has prompted a backlash from critics who have vigorously protested the projects development in federal waters off Nantucket Sound, where people own expensive homes on the seaside.

State lawmakers approved the Massachusetts Oceans Act last year in part to create a document to cover various ocean activities while protecting certain areas considered too environmentally sensitive for development.

A current version of the map would limit large-scale offshore wind farms to two small areas close to Martha's Vineyard and allow smaller community-based wind projects in other portions of state waters.

Almost any development off the Cape Cod National Seashore, 40 miles of beaches, marshes and ponds home to diverse species, would be barred.

The Massachusetts map should be an inspiration for other states and for the nation, Lubchenco said, although she acknowledged that drafting a similar map out to the 200-mile limit for all national coastal waters would be complex.

She added that the goal of the task force is to get the discussion started and to help move the country away from more piecemeal regulations.

Although Lubchenco said it is still unclear what to expect from the project: "The goal is to have some reasonable expectations so people can plan."


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