President’s Ocean Zoning Plan Called A Threat To Fishing

OCEAN CITY — A potential plan to effectively zone vast areas of the open ocean along the nation’s coastlines got more play this week with a congressional committee hearing on Wednesday.

Last year, based on the recommendations of the Interagency Task Force on Ocean Policy, President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for a National Ocean Policy, a policy that could include a somewhat controversial “marine spatial zoning” of the seas off the nation’s coastlines, including here in Ocean City and the mid-Atlantic.

The president called for the creation of a National Ocean Council, an organization of stakeholders to coordinate federal regulation of activities along the nation’s coasts.

A pillar of the recommendations is the creation of a plan to implement the same type of planning and zoning practices applied on land to open areas of ocean off the coast.

In essence, if the plan comes to fruition, some areas of open ocean could be zoned to allow for industrial uses such as offshore drilling, shipping and alternative energy, while others could be set aside only for recreational uses such as fishing or boating.

More simply put, while industrial and commercial interests share the open ocean with recreational uses such as fishing and boating in a sort of peaceful coexistence, the president’s plan for a national ocean policy including marine spatial zoning could create a grid of sorts off the coast where some activities are allowed and other are not. Already, the plan has received mixed reviews from the public and private sectors.

The president’s ocean zoning plan had a hearing in front of the House Committee on Natural Resources in early October during which several groups, including the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) and the Billfish Foundation, for example, testified against the proposal. A second hearing was held last week, and while the outcome of that hearing is not known, opponents of the plan, including the House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, were expected to come out against the proposal again.

In a prepared statement released in advance of the oversight hearing, Hastings called the president’s proposal to zone the ocean another layer of cumbersome over-regulation.

“The president’s new National Ocean Policy is one more example of this administration imposing burdensome federal regulations and policies that could destroy American jobs and hinder economic growth,” said Hastings. “This policy requires a new federal initiative called marine spatial planning, otherwise known as ocean zoning, which could place huge portions of our oceans off limits to recreation, energy production, transportation and other commercial activities.”

The Recreational Fishing Alliance, which has made no secret about its dissatisfaction with the National Ocean Policy, said the proposal to zone vast areas of the ocean threaten recreational and commercial fishing. While often at odds with the current fisheries management systems in place, the RFA said this week the National Ocean Policy threatens to ban certain fishing activities along the nation’s coastlines.

“The RFA has made it very clear the new National Ocean Council threatens to override all of our current federal fisheries management processes, threatens the integrity of our recreational fishing councils and creates an overarching bureaucracy, which could summarily dismiss all input from stakeholders,” said Donofrio. “It has the very real possibility of arbitrarily banning sportfishing activities throughout U.S. coastal waters and we are absolutely opposed to this presidential decree.”

Meanwhile, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) also urged the National Ocean Policy task force, charged with developing a plan to zone the ocean, to consider the economic and social impacts of closing certain areas to recreational uses such as fishing and boating, for example. ASA president and CEO Mike Nussman urged the task force to keep an open seat at the table for the sport fishing and recreational sector when it comes time to drawing maps and creating zones.

“We are pleased to see that the task force included recreational fishing and boating as part of the National Ocean Policy,” he said. “However, we wish that the task force would have gone further and established public access to these great resources as a national priority. It is vital that we remain vigilant and involved in the design and implementation process. Closing our public resources to recreational activities can have a devastating impact on businesses and livelihoods that are dependent on those activities.”