So, what is marine spatial planning, anyway?

One weekend last month I attended the Switzer Foundation’s spring retreat on marine spatial planning in New England. When I started the weekend, I didn’t know much about marine spatial planning – I wasn’t even entirely sure what the term meant – so I learned a ton from the retreat’s speakers and panel discussions.

Basically, different groups of people (ie. stakeholders) want to do different things in the ocean. Things like fishing, enjoying nature, transporting goods or acquiring energy. The objective of ocean resource management is to sustainably balance all the stakeholders’ needs.  One way to approach that goal is to only allow certain activities in specified areas in order to reduce the impact on the environment and other stakeholders as much as possible. The process of deciding what to allow where is “marine spatial planning.”

The Sea Education Campus (SEA) in Woods Hole, MA, where the retreat was located.  Photo: patricialapadula.com
The Sea Education Campus (SEA) in Woods Hole, MA, where the retreat was located. Photo: patricialapadula.com

A lot of the retreat was devoted to the issues surrounding offshore wind farms – which isn’t surprising, considering that Cape Wind is finally supposed to begin construction of a wind farm in Nantucket Sound after spending more than a decade on the approval process. However, the example of marine spatial planning I found the most compelling was a success story involving shipping lanes across Stellwagen Bank, told by David Wiley (the research coordinator for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary).

Stellwagen Bank is a national marine sanctuary located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. The bank is an underwater plateau, which allows deep nutrient-rich water to upwell to the surface and support a diverse ecosystem, including many species of whales. However, the bank also experiences heavy commercial shipping traffic due to its proximity to Boston. Consequently, increases in the number and speed of ships entering Boston Harbor has caused the number of whales killed by collisions with ships within the sanctuary to also increase.

Scientists from the sanctuary compiled years of data on whale sightings to assess where whales were most likely to be found in Stellwagen Bank. When they plotted the whale data on a map showing shipping traffic, it was revealed that some of the whales’ preferred feeding habitat was directly in the shipping lane!

A map of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  Dots represent right whale sightings, solid lines indicate previous shipping lanes, dotted lines indicate new shipping lanes. stellwagen.noaa.gov
A map of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Dots represent right whale sightings, solid lines indicate previous shipping lanes, dotted lines indicate new shipping lanes. stellwagen.noaa.gov

After this discovery, scientists from the sanctuary worked with the shipping companies to reach a solution. Together, they determined that slightly shifting the shipping lane would still allow ships to efficiently reach Boston Harbor while reducing the number of whale strikes by 60%.

The sanctuary also now employs a monitoring system with buoys that detect whales in the shipping lane. Information from the buoys is communicated to ships though the “Whale Alert” iPhone app, which provides detailed information on whale location and makes recommendations for reduced ship speeds. It’s really refreshing to hear about different stakeholders working together and harnessing new technology for a common conservation goal!

Photo: news.cnet.com
Screenshot of the Whale Alert app. Yellow circles indicate that a whale was detected within the past 24 hours. Photo: news.cnet.com
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