ELLSWORTH — Six years ago, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a National Ocean Policy that called for the creation of nine regional planning boards to develop plans “to better manage the nation’s oceans and coasts.”
Four years ago, the Northeast Regional Planning Board was formed to develop a plan for the waters off New England. The board includes representatives of nine federal agencies with authority of one sort or another over activities in the ocean, six federally recognized tribes, the New England Fishery Management Council and all six New England states.
Since then, the Northeast board has worked to draft a plan that will promote “healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems,” effective decision-making and “compatibility among past, current and future ocean uses.”
On Monday, the board held a hearing at the Ellsworth Library to solicit comment from the public and from “stakeholders” on what it anticipates is a near-final draft of the Northeast Ocean Plan. The public comment period began May 25 and ends July 25.
Monday’s hearing was one of nine scheduled throughout New England during the month of June. The first was held in Rockland on June 6. The final hearing — and the third in Maine — is scheduled for June 30 in Portland.
The current schedule calls for the Northeast board to meet in September after staff members have incorporated public comments to approve final version of the plan. The final step will be for the National Ocean Council to review and approve the plan which is subject to revision at five-year intervals.
The departments of Marine Resources and Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry have represented Maine during the four-year process. Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson has taken the lead for DMR. On Monday, she described the draft plan as “a best practices document” that could serve as “a platform for better interagency communication” that might help the state and federal bureaucracies involved in managing ocean activities “do a better job of engaging our stakeholders.”
On the federal side, the Regional Planning Board includes representatives from nine federal agencies: the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Interior and Transportation; and the Environmental Protection Agency. Each of those departments and agencies exercises some regulatory or management authority over some facet of ocean use.
At Monday’s meeting, Mel Coté, manager of EPA’s Office of Ecosystem Protection for the Northeast, told an audience of some two dozen that “government agencies have to work together more effectively” because so many uses of the ocean are in potential conflict.
The plan, Coté said, offers “a real opportunity to practice ecosystem-based management.”
How that will work in practice remains to be seen. Because the National Ocean Policy and regional planning boards were established by executive order, the federal agencies are required to participate in drafting, and following, the regional plans. Participation by the states and tribes, though, is entirely voluntary.
Whether the existence of a plan will affect how federal agencies share information and cooperate remains an open question.
At least initially, the “centerpiece of the plan” is a data rich “reference portal” on the internet at neoceanplanning.org/easy-access-to-ocean-data. The site includes hundreds of interactive maps that show virtually every coastal and marine activity in New England from Priority Restoration and Conservation Projects, to Commercial Vessel Traffic to a Centralized Source of Bathymetry Data.
The problem, as both Coté several audience members commented, is that data that is mapped, but is either inaccurate or not current, can have serious adverse impacts on the decision-making process.
Mendelson said her hope is that the plan will lead to less “stovepiping,” pushing data up through levels of a bureaucracy without proper context, and more sharing of information.
With a draft plan nearly 200 pages in length, it is “difficult to read the document and understand what its value might be,” Mendelson said.
The drafting process has “been challenging for people in heavily regulated industries,” virtually all ocean occupations, “to engage in. It’s so abstract.”
Whatever the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan may do, it creates “no new regulatory authority,” Mendelson said.
“It’s a conversation.”