by Elizabeth Nguyen & Alyssa Murphy
With sea level rise and its effect on our community on our minds, we thought we would turn our attention this month to learning a little more about our neighbor the ocean. We invited our friend Jennifer Felt to help us understand the parallels between land use planning and ocean planning and how the two affect one another. As Jen noted, “every other breath we take comes from…photosynthesis that happens in the ocean; healthy oceans directly connect to healthy communities.”
Jen visited our office to discuss her work as the Ocean Campaign Director at the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a regional environmental organization that focuses exclusively on New England. They function as a watchdog for federal and state environmental regulations and their ocean program also focuses on engaging stakeholders and establishing effective policies.
A Maine native, Jen first engaged in environmental advocacy as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. She worked for several years in Washington, D.C. advocating for environmental protections at the national level and for U.S. support of international environmental measures. She now brings this global perspective to bear on the issues that are critical to the health of her local community.
It seemed incredible to us, but the very first National Ocean Policy was established by the Obama administration in 2010. It directs federal agencies to work collaboratively with state agencies, federally recognized tribes, as well as key stakeholders such as ocean user groups to work together on guiding ocean policy. New England will be the very first region to develop an ocean management plan (a draft of which will be available May 25 and can be found at neoceanplanning.org).
A large part of regional ocean planning is to encourage decision makers at various levels to better coordinate among themselves and with stakeholders, and to commit to using a central data portal. The Northeast Ocean Data Portal is fascinating—you can click and see all the recreational traffic, or the natural resources, and then layer the information. This is significant, Jen noted, because while “it’s great to know where certain activities are happening or proposed in the ocean, the ability to look at the data portal and consider those activities or proposed activities effects on other activities or on ocean habitat is fundamental when making decisions about the future use and health of our oceans.”
Renewable and/or cleaner energy resource development is a relatively new and emerging use in New England that the ocean plan is designed to address. The data portal can inform what areas could or could not be appropriate for this use, as well as increased opportunities for ocean users to get involved in the decision making process. CLF is pushing for the identification of Important Ecological Areas (IEAs) as well as guidance to the agencies in the plan on how they might consider IEAs in their decision making processes.
Coming to consensus on ocean policy is complicated. CLF facilitates the New England Ocean Action Network (NEOAN), whose New Hampshire representatives include the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, the Seacoast Science Center, and NH Community Seafood. The Rockingham Planning Commission, director of NH’s Ports and Harbors, and UNH Shoals Marine Lab, among others, have also been part of the dialogue.
Our Own Marine National Monument
We also learned that CLF is collaborating with some of these organizations and many others to support the designation of the first Marine National Monument in the Northeast. There are currently only four national monuments, and they are all in the Central Pacific. CLF is advocating for two areas in the Northeast, the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts and Cashes Ledge. The first, The Coral Canyons and Seamounts, is located 130-180 miles southeast of Cape Cod. The other, Cashes Ledge, is right in our back yard. Just 80 miles off of Portsmouth in the Gulf of Maine, it supports the deepest and largest underwater Kelp Forest on the Atlantic Seaboard. Topographically an underwater mountain range, Cashes Ledge is a biodiversity hot spot and a critical location for scientists to study the impacts of climate change, including ocean acidification. While some forms of fishing are currently not permitted, there are no protections in place to prevent destructive commercial activities, such as sand and gravel mining or natural gas exploration, from degrading this unique resource.
Jen lamented that we simply have not begun to recognize the need to protect our special habitats and ecosystems in the ocean the way we do on land. “Cashes Ledge represents less than 1.5 % of the Gulf of Maine, so it is a small, but very important spot….” She continued, “the argument that this is about environmentalists vs. the fishing industry is really frustrating because there’s not a whole lot of fishing going on in there…this is about a lot more. This is about the fact that this is one of the last remaining holdouts of relatively good health [in the Gulf of Maine]” and as such it is critical to protect as a place for scientific research, a nursery for commercially important fish species, and to help safeguard future ocean health.
Jen encourages those who want to help in the effort to achieve this designation to write a letter to your state representatives. As greater stakeholders in the Gulf of Maine, supporters in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine are particularly critical to emphasize that Cashes Ledge should be included in any designation. You can take action on the CLF website where there is a form letter you can adapt and send to your representatives.
More to Learn
The conversation highlighted for us how little we know about how the vast resources of the ocean that sustains us are managed. Land use planning is something that we’re used to as both architects and citizens—we expect to play by established rules that are clearly defined by our communities. Ocean planning is a conversation that is just starting, but one that will become more and more crucial as changing conditions affect the natural environment and the way we interact with it.