Incorporating Community into Regional Ocean Planning

Image of Stonington Harbor, Maine.

Guest post by Rebecca Clark and Nick Battista, Island Institute.

It is well documented that the waters off of New England are changing. Between shifts in the ecosystem and changing use patterns, the future of coastal communities is uncertain. What is certain is that the future of our coastal communities is intertwined with decisions about how we use and manage these waters. A well-executed ocean plan will help these communities protect their future, improve ocean management, and result in healthier ecosystems.

As the New England Regional Planning Body moves forward with developing a regional ocean plan, it is important to remember that the work plan for the RPB includes an objective about improving coordination with local communities in the decision making process. This is a good start towards helping ensure the plan addresses some of the concerns of coastal communities.

To help clarify and articulate some of the underlying concerns, as well as ways the RPB could move forward, we drafted this framework. The framework is based on numerous conversations with fishermen and fishing communities about the concerns and hopes for the ocean planning process. By including the following kinds of data sets and processes in the plan, the RPB will take significant steps towards addressing the underlying concerns raised by fishermen and fishing communities around New England.

  • Data layers that explicitly include accounting for environmental shifts caused by climate change;
  • Best practices for engaging communities in the decision making and permitting processes;
  • Data layers incorporate community-level social, cultural, and economic values;
  • A method to incorporate fine-scale data from fishermen.

“The Gulf of Maine is changing at a rapid rate and in ways never seen before by today’s fishermen” (Predictive Capabilities Workshop Report 2015)

From fishing communities across New England we have heard that fishermen are seeing shifts in the marine ecosystem due to climate change and other human drivers. New species are appearing as bycatch and changing water temperatures have influenced economically important fisheries.

“The Gulf of Maine is at the doorstep of one of the largest temperature gradients on the planet. Lobsters are experiencing two sides of the climate story – in southern New England they are declining, and in northern New England the populations are expanding” (Climate of Change Workshop Report 2013).

Incorporating higher resolution climate models and current predictions into the planning process helps acknowledge that the ocean is changing and helps ensure that the decisions federal agencies make about ocean uses are done in the context of a shifting ocean. Accounting for climate change, including looking at future projections, will make the regional ocean plan more resilient.

As they see fish resources shift, fishermen are also increasingly aware of emerging ocean uses such as sand and gravel mining, offshore wind, offshore aquaculture and increased shipping that will be competing with them for ocean space and resources. These uses can exclude communities from areas of the ocean that they depend on for their livelihoods, threatening the viability of these communities.

As outlined in the Commercial Fisheries Spatial Characterization, a project commissioned by the Northeast Regional Ocean Council for use in the development of an ocean plan, the specific places in the ocean that these fishing communities rely on are determined by a variety of factors—including the size of the fishing boats, the species being sought, fishing pressure from other communities, and a wide variety of fisheries management decisions. All of these factors are interrelated and the unique combination for each fisherman helps shape how they respond to proposed changes that impact existing uses.

For a developer of ocean space that is important to a nearby community, continuously engaging stakeholders throughout the process is critical because the loss of that ability can mean the decline or disappearance of an entire community—a scary proposition. In Maine, we have seen firsthand why communications are so important during the planning process. Through helping Monhegan Island engage with the University of Maine on offshore wind, we have seen how valuable and productive a conversation between a developer of a new ocean use and a natural resource dependent community can be. The benefits of this engagement can also be seen in Block Island’s experience with Deep Water Wind.

For communities, the use of ocean space is not just about direct economic activity or decisions about which use is more “valuable.”  The economic and biophysical features that tend to dominate spatial planning data can overshadow the importance of the intangible cultural values found in the region’s fishing communities. Incorporating these values into the plan could be “accomplished such as by making parts of the data open source or adding oral histories” (Stakeholder Forum 2014). While the RPB has been working with tribal leaders to identify important tribal cultural areas, the cultural value and strong ties to the ocean that go back for 400 years in some natural resource-dependent communities should also be acknowledged and included in the plan. “These places are endangered species, Maine islands, and I think that anytime you lose a community, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on the mainland or an island, the whole world has lost something” (Donna Damon, Chebeague Island, Maine). If this type of information is not captured in the plan, the full value of the ocean to these communities could be underestimated or misunderstood.

Fishermen frequently have a great depth of knowledge about specific places in the ocean. It is difficult to translate this local ecological knowledge into comments on regional data sets that are derived from federal government data. An awareness of the value and kinds of local ecological knowledge is an important piece of contextual information for the regional plan and incorporating better fine scale data from fishermen into specific decision making processes would help ensure coastal communities have a more robust role in the implementation of the plan.

Each of these ideas addresses an important concern that many fishermen and community members have raised about the ocean planning process. Incorporating these ideas into the ocean planning objective about improving coordination with local communities will help protect these communities and allow them to have a bigger say in future decisions about uses that will impact their community. By explicitly acknowledging and accounting for the unique relationship that New England fishing communities have with the ocean, the plan itself will become more durable.


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