Comment Period Opens On Proposed Ocean Action Plan

OCEAN CITY — Preserving the fragile balance between protecting sensitive ecologic areas and fostering healthy maritime economic development off the mid-Atlantic coast including Maryland is at the heart of a draft Ocean Action Plan released this month after a collaborative three-year effort by state and local stakeholders.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body (RPB) last week opened the public comment period on its draft Ocean Action Plan, which represents a collaborative regional ocean planning effort involving state and local stakeholders. Locally, the public got their first look at the extensive ocean planning document and a chance to weigh in on the various components at a public meeting at the Ocean Pines Library on July 19.

Boiled down to its simplest terms, the draft Ocean Action Plan is an attempt to pull together the vast number of users of the resources along with the state and federal agencies that regulate them and create a one-stop portal of sorts for information and data needed to make informed decisions on ocean management in the region.

From the pending offshore wind energy farms and sand management including beach replenishment to potential future offshore drilling to military testing and commercial and recreational fishing, there is a lot going on out on the ocean just beyond the horizon and heretofore the various state and federal agencies have not always been on the same page when it comes to planning and the shares use of the resource. To that end, the proposed Ocean Action Plan fostered by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean (MARCO) is an attempt to get all of the partnering agencies on the same page and at the same table when it comes to making major decisions regarding ocean use.

“There is a lot going on off the mid-Atlantic coast including Maryland,” said U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration Director John Kennedy. “The take-home point to all of this is the federal government is working closely with Maryland and the other stakeholders. Water doesn’t know jurisdictional boundaries and we’re trying to establish some common decision-making led by some guiding principles.”

While the draft Ocean Action Plan applies to the entire mid-Atlantic region from North Carolina to New York, there are several components germane to the Maryland coast including Ocean City and Assateague. For example, there is an offshore wind energy farm in the works 20 miles off the coast. A proposal for offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the Maryland coast was nixed earlier this spring, but could return in the future in one form or another. Sand management is always near and dear to Ocean City and Assateague including beach replenishment and navigational dredging for the former and beach erosion and sea level rise for the latter.

No less important is the vast billion-dollar recreational and commercial fishing industry and the economic value it creates for the region. All of the uses are intrinsically linked and coordinating the planning for the various federal, state and local stakeholders is the primary goal of the Ocean Action Plan.

“Non-consumptive uses like recreational fishing are so important to the coastal economies,” said Kennedy. “We need to make sure the beaches are clean and the water quality is clear. This is about everybody coming together to achieve that. It’s everybody’s ocean. It’s all the same ocean. This is a critical time right now and we need everybody’s input.”

While the Ocean Action Plan takes a regional approach, Maryland officials are keeping a close eye on its components most important to the state, said Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesperson Gwynne Schultz this week.

“We’re taking a close look at what’s important to the state and its citizens,” she said. “There has been a lot of work done on a single portal to consolidate information. You can look at the data and determine who is using it and where and how.”

Schultz said the various federal and state agencies often make significant decisions on ocean planning in a vacuum according to their own agendas.

“When you look at things like wind energy or sand management, you might have BOEM [Bureau of Ocean Energy Management] going in one direction and the Army Corps of Engineers going in a different direction,” she said. “The agencies work within their own programs and collaborate sometimes only after the fact.”

The Ocean Action Plan is an attempt to alleviate that.

The Surfrider Foundation has a stake in long-term ocean planning off the mid-Atlantic coast. While the advocacy group applauded the intent of the Ocean Action Plan, some questioned if the draft plan goes far enough.

“The draft plan is a wonderful step toward better management of our ocean,” said Surfrider Foundation Environmental Director Peter Stauffer. “However, the final plan must include stronger actions to protect the most ecologically important areas of the ocean. If we cannot safeguard these areas, we run the risk of losing their intrinsic value as well as the economic benefits that result from coastal recreation and tourism.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.