19 Jul Why the NE Regional Ocean Plan Matters: A Look at the Plan with Dr. Sandra Whitehouse

The public comment period for the first draft of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan, a new plan created to support better management of the ocean, is open until July 25. Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, a consultant and senior policy advisor to the Ocean Conservancy whose family has been in Rhode Island for six generations, can’t stress enough how important it is for those of us whose livelihood depends on the water to review the plan and log our feedback.

An Integrated Approach to Marine Planning

The concept of spatial marine planning is not new, according to Whitehouse, but integrating all the different uses of the ocean–from recreational boating & fishing to wind farming, marine life, aquaculture, transportation and commercial fishing–into a single plan is a first for the U.S. “While we, as humans, have managed this system in silos, whether that is fishing or shipping or wind farming, the natural world functions as an integrated system. We need to look at the ocean in a more holistic way,” says Whitehouse.

This new plan is the result of four years of work coordinated by the Northeast Regional Planning Body—which includes representatives from the six New England states, federally recognized tribes, federal agencies and the New England Fishery Management Council–with input from thousands of marine stakeholders such as commercial fishermen, recreational boaters, conservationists, renewable energy businesses, tourism operators and other maritime businesses.

A Breakthrough for Recreational Boating

Whitehouse, a boater her entire life, knows this plan is a breakthrough for boaters: for the first time, our industry has tangible data about where New Englanders boat and what our economic impact is. This valuable information gives our industry a stronger voice when it comes to ocean planning and policy.

The data on boaters is from the 2012 Northeast Recreational Boater Survey, which used a crowd-sourcing model to gather the information. A total of some 380,000 boaters from Maine to New York logged information on their routes to produce a map that depicts the densest areas of boater traffic and routes, as well as information on long-distance sailing races in the region. Additional surveys on economic impact revealed that boaters contributed $3.5 billion to the Northeast economy in 2012.

Another benefit for boaters, according to Whitehouse, is that this plan will give federal agencies a single set of data to work from when setting ocean policy. For example, if a marina were looking into expansion or dredging in the past, they may have had to go to different permitting agencies to get information they needed to proceed, and those answers may not have always been consistent.

“Agencies now have a common set of data to work from, and a common set of goals,” says Whitehouse. “The plan is not regulatory, but it sets out guidelines.”

Log Your Feedback

The Ocean Plan was released on May 25 and allowed for a public comment period of 60 days. Feedback from stakeholders such as RIMTA members is a vital part of the process.

“At the Ocean Conservancy, we advocated for a robust stakeholder process,” says Whitehouse. “The information in the plan should be vetted by the stakeholders for whom it is relevant…and that means having multiple opportunities for stakeholders to weigh in.”

To make it easy for individuals to log their feedback, a series of meetings were held throughout New England in June. But if you were not able to attend one of the meetings, you can still log your input via email (comment@neoceanplanning.org) before the July 25 deadline.

Before you do, you can review a draft of the plan here. Chapter 3 addresses the recreational use of the ocean in the Northeast.

You can also access information that was reviewed in the in-person meetings that were held in June by following this link and reviewing the webinar slides.

Finally, data portals were set up for each stakeholder group. To access all the portals, click here. Find maps here that plot recreational use–including boating density, common boating routes and offshore sailing events as well as maps of other activities such as whale watching.

A Career Based on a Passion for the Ocean

Dr. Sandra Whitehouse’s career is based on a passion for the ocean. “I was the kid with the bucket at the beach, collecting crabs and other sea creatures. I was always drawn to the ocean, wanting to understand it,” she says. A childhood spent around the water and on boats led her to URI, where she got her PhD in marine biology.

Being in Rhode Island was a fortunate occurrence for Whitehouse. After earning her doctorate, Whitehouse became a member of the Ocean State’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). At the CRMC she was first exposed to the field of ocean planning and management and realized how valuable her science background was in this type of work. “I didn’t know everything about ocean science,” she says. “But as questions came up, I knew how to find the answers.”

The Northeast Regional Ocean Plan is not even final yet, but Whitehouse is already seeing its value in marine spatial planning. She met recently with the world’s largest wind developer interested in scouting locations for lease sites in New England; before their first meeting, the company had already consulted the data behind the Plan to educate themselves about the area and how it is used.

That incident encouraged Sandra Whitehouse that this Plan is coming to fruition just at the right time. “Ocean planning has two primary purposes,” says Whitehouse. “One is ocean health and conservation, but the twin purpose is sustainable development. The Northeast Regional Ocean Plan is a tool we can use to ensure that we have both.