The New Frontier

Zoning Rules to Protect Marine Resources

Nearly a century after zoning was introduced to prevent the ravages of uncontrolled land development, the concept is moving offshore to protect ocean resources. From Canada’s Scotian Shelf to the state waters of Massachusetts and the entire ocean territory of New Zealand, ocean managers are increasingly looking to large-scale zoning as a way to manage emerging conflicts and plan for future uses of the sea.

The world"s oceans have been largely unregulated, open to exploitation by oil companies and others. Ocean zoning could change that, but the process has to include input from commercial fishermen.©photos to go

At the most basic level, ocean zoning involves lines on a map and a set of use regulations. Geographic areas are divided into districts and the activities permitted in each are clearly defined. The districts can range from "no-go" zones where only limited scientific research is allowed to multiple-use zones that permit fishing, oil and gas extraction or specialized zones for shipping and aquaculture.

Large-scale ocean zoning is related to and can include marine protected areas, such as the 13 national marine sanctuaries run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The concept also draws on the existing framework of resource protections and de facto zones that exist worldwide, from the U.S. Clean Water Act to fisheries management closure areas.

Where ocean zoning differs is its geographic scale and integrated planning. For the most part, entire bodies of water are the focus. Uses that are currently regulated by a maze of federal, state and local government are brought under a single plan. Perhaps the biggest departure from past approaches is ocean zoning’s prospective outlook. "More comprehensive planning would allow managers to be pro-active rather than re-active," says John Duff, who teaches environmental law at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Calls for better ocean management are growing as technology increases humans" ability to exploit the sea. Bottom trawling and long-line nets have not only gutted stocks of cod and sea bass but devastated ecosystems wholesale. New seismic sensing and platform designs allow oil and natural gas extraction at greater depths—with an ever-increasing ecological toll.

"We’re now able to do on the open ocean what we once did on our western frontier—eradicate the wildlife, extract the minerals and alter or pollute the habitat," says David Helvarg, president of the Blue Frontier Campaign. "Ironically, what zoning—which we think of as restrictive—may actually allow us to do is protect vast regions of unexplored marine wilderness."

Closer to the shore, proposals for liquefied natural gas terminals, submerged fiber optic and electricity cables, aquaculture and wind farms are pressuring ocean managers to better allocate limited resources while protecting the environment. "The technologies and concepts are running ahead of the readiness of government to properly manage them," says Richard Charter, a marine conservation advocate for Environmental Defense in Oakland, California. "We are probably about five years from where we should be as a nation."

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was the first to apply large-scale zoning as an integral part of its management in 1975. The 132,000-square-mile park is a marine protected area, but the levels of protection range widely, from general-use zones in the south to conservation zones in the north and near coral reefs. Similar examples of large-scale zoning include the Wadden Sea National Park, which borders Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark and is the first tri-national zoning plan, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which spans 3,600 square miles and includes 23 no-take areas.

The next generation of zoning goes a step further. New Zealand’s Ocean Policy, initiated in 2000, is the most aggressive on the planet, covering the country’s entire exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles offshore. In Canada, the fisheries and oceans agency is drafting an integrated management plan for the Eastern Scotian Shelf near Nova Scotia that is expected to lead to zoning there and elsewhere.

In the U.S., meaningful federal ocean management reform is effectively dead in the water, at least for now. In December, the White House Council on Environmental Quality vowed to act immediately on only 40 of the 200-plus recommendations set out by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy last fall. Instead of creating a $4 billion ocean trust fund paid by oil and gas lease revenues, the Bush administration announced only a request for $2.7 million for coral reef protection.

But U.S. states are moving ahead on their own, with Massachusetts" ocean-use plan taking the lead. In early 2005, the state expects to introduce a bill that calls for zoning all state waters from three to nine miles offshore. Susan Snow-Cotter, acting director of Massachusetts" Office of Coastal Zone Management, says the plan will be reviewed every five years, with its first generation focusing on managing structures. Discussions are taking place about zoning ocean resources, including the Gulf of Maine and Long Island Sound.

By its very nature, large-scale ocean zoning is not easy to put in place, planners say. It’s more complex than its terrestrial counterpart, since it involves not only the water surface but also the air space above the entire water column and the sea floor. In many cases, there are significant gaps in knowledge about the various uses and ecosystems in each water body, and bridging those gaps will require costly studies.

The biggest challenge, according to Penny Doherty of the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia will be winning over traditional users whose livelihoods depend on access to the sea. Pat Augustine of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission says commercial fishermen are highly sensitive to being "fenced out" of the ocean and question the logic of stationary zones intended to protect highly mobile fish. Groups like the National Fisheries Institute, the largest U.S. seafood trade association, say that existing rules already say how much, when and where fish can be caught, and that more comprehensive management of the largely unexplored oceans is a "monumental" undertaking.

But John Ogden of the Florida Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg, Florida says the political tide is turning in favor of large-scale ocean zoning. He cites the example of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, who last October committed $10 million to an "Ocean Action Plan" that calls for the state to develop a master plan for its entire 1,100-mile coastline by 2011.

"I don’t know about zoning all the oceans on the globe, but certainly within 200 miles of the shore," adds Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy in San Francisco. "It’s absolutely essential that we establish some clear guidelines."