ELLSWORTH — For nearly 200 years, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has produced traditional paper nautical charts. Soon, like peg legs, parrots and tricorn hats, NOAA’s paper charts will disappear from the sea and become historical artifacts.
Two years ago this month, the national chart agency announced that it would study ways to produce paper charts “more efficiently.”
In a “Sunset Plan” released last week, the agency announced that it would completely phase out production of “traditional” paper nautical charts, and electronic “raster” charts by January 2025.
Raster charts are digital or paper images of traditional nautical charts. The image is produced from rows of color pixels — or ink dots on paper charts — that form the text and symbols on the chart.
Prudent mariners will still have paper charts available to back up the near ubiquitous Electronic Navigation Chart (ENC) displayed on numerous devices.
Those devices range from the dedicated electronic chart displays (ECDIS) installed on the bridges of large vessels, to dedicated global positioning system (GPS) chartplotters found nowadays on most lobster and recreational boats, to iPads and smartphones. Mariners just won’t be able to get those paper charts from NOAA.
As outlined in the current plan, NOAA will spend the next five years improving its ENC products while simultaneously developing a “custom chart” website that will allow mariners to create printable charts covering the exact area in which they’re interested. Chart notes and other information will be shown on a separate PDF page.
It will also still be possible to buy printed charts from commercial third-party providers who may continue to supply products such as the well-known “ChartKit” and “Chartbook.”
Ultimately, production will be shut down for all chart products and services associated with traditional NOAA paper nautical charts, including: print-on-demand paper nautical charts; printable full-size chart PDFs; printed NOAA navigational charts; “BookletChart” PDFs; and the online viewer for printed charts. Cancellation of those products and services will start sometime next year.
The decision to switch entirely to ENC from paper reflects what has happened in the nautical marketplace. According to NOAA, since 2008, ENC sales have increased by 425 percent while sales of paper charts have dropped by half.
The NOAA decision reflects what is happening worldwide.
The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency that sets standards for the shipping industry, now requires all large commercial vessels on international voyages to use ENCs.
In 2016, the Coast Guard began to let regulated commercial vessels in U.S. waters replace paper charts with ENCs.
The phase-out of paper navigational charts comes while NOAA is in the midst of a multi-year project to improve its existing ENC coverage.
Currently, the ENC catalog includes some 1,200 “cells,” often irregularly shaped, produced at more than 130 different scales. Eventually, NOAA will produce its ENCs using a standard gridded layout compiled in just a dozen standard scales.
The result, according to the charting agency, will be an increase in the number of ENC cells to some 9,000 and a significant improvement in both the level of detail and the consistency in the format among ENCs.