Planning Ocean Space for the Future: Notes from the Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium

Since the beginning of July, Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound have been abuzz with barges, tugs, and supply vessels carrying steel pilings and jacket foundations, each weighing up to 450 tons, to build what will be the country’s first offshore wind farm.

“It’s often a discussion on who has the right to be there, and that’s really not the right conversation. It’s ‘how do we make a variety of conflicting interests work together?’”

“There are a lot of lessons to be had from the fact that our project made it to this moment and others didn’t,” said Jeff Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind, in his keynote address at the Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium on marine spatial planning (MSP), which brought practitioners from across the nation and globe to discuss the needs and challenges of this emerging field.

“At the end of the day, marine spatial planning was one of the principal reasons why.”

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First steel in the water off Block Island to build foundations for offshore wind turbines. Photo courtesy of Ambar Espinoza, RI Public Radio

The Block Island Wind Farm, which will be located 3 miles southeast of Block Island and will consist of five 6MW turbines that could provide energy for an estimated 17,000 homes, was not conceived overnight. Rather, it was the result of years of intensive research in the field to examine seafloor sediments and habitats, whale and bird migration patterns, as well as the fishing, recreation and cultural landmarks in Rhode Island’s offshore waters. It was the result of dozens of technical and public meetings with planners and stakeholders; of hours of conversation, debate, mapping and data analysis to better understand existing uses, where they overlapped and where potential development could be.

“The most important role isn’t the plan, but the process,” said Grybowski, explaining that the “process” helped identify and start conversations with key stakeholder groups that would’ve otherwise been a very challenging undertaking for a private company, or anyone else on their own, to achieve. This in turn helped lay the groundwork for the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP), created by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and various partners including Rhode Island Sea Grant, which aided Deepwater Wind in identifying areas that would be best suited for a wind farm and make the Block Island Wind Farm a reality.

“Other [proposals for offshore wind farms] failed mostly because the developer would come in and just say they wanted to build somewhere, but this process invested research and input to identify areas that people would be comfortable developing,” he said explaining how ‘engaging meaningfully’ with various stakeholders, specifically fishermen, was important to identify potential user conflicts in an area and find common ground. “It’s often a discussion on who has the right to be there, and that’s really not the right conversation. It’s ‘how do we make a variety of conflicting interests work together?’”

Grybowski’s address was made to practitioners and resource managers from private and public sectors, as well as government, interested in learning more about the various processes for marine spatial planning; what works and doesn’t, and why.

“The idea behind marine spatial planning, as with all planning, is that the thinking is in the future, long-term, with specific focus on the use and development of offshore marine waters,” he said praising the Ocean SAMP for being “invaluable” in bringing stakeholders together to generate key dialog and gather key data that ultimately sped up the permitting process for the wind farm. “My best guess is that the [Ocean SAMP] planning process probably saved us two years.”

A gross underestimate, according to Grover Fugate, CRMC Executive Director, who said some, much smaller, project applications such as a marina expansion, are still waiting for permits 10 years later.

While it’s difficult to quantify all of the benefits, such as seafood production and ecosystem preservation, associated with MSP, offshore wind development was cited as having the most to gain as a “capital-intensive and newer industry,” according to Jason Blau from Redstone Strategy Group.

webhighlight“We found that there were significant economic benefits of marine spatial plans, at least at the gross level. The biggest of those is siting wind farms, and we found that often these plans retained users of the oceans values [such as fisheries and tourism] supporting over 4 billion dollars in ocean economies,” he said referencing data on general trends from existing operations such as those in Belgium and Germany. “One of the advantages of MSP is that you can put things in places where they’ll impact users less.”

There can also be some negative impacts, Blau explained, but that marine spatial planning allows a way to compensate for some of those losses citing Rhode Island has having provided compensation packages, largely by the wind developers, to fishermen impacted.

But marine spatial planning isn’t just intended to divide up marine space based on user interests alone(e.g. commercial fishing and recreation to energy development and marine transportation), it is also intended to consider the environmental and cultural integrity of an area, and conserving resources.

Redstone Strategy, according to Blau, found that most marine spatial plans did expand environmental protection of an area to about 50 percent on average.

“We need to know where resources are and what services they’re providing,” said Lynn Hale from The Nature Conservancy, using a few examples such as wetlands that are crucial for fish production and coastal protection. “From an environmental perspective, it’s thinking and documenting the ecosystem values, not just the species or habitats. Why do they matter to people and your economic development?”

The primary science demands to manage marine space varies across regional, national and international agendas, according to Dr. Patrick Halpin from Duke University explaining that while regional priorities lean more toward regulations and user conflicts, national priorities are primarily strategic in nature and international agendas focus on items from resource management to identifying areas of ecological significance.

“There’s a gulf in what academic communities are interested in working on and what can actually be done on the ground,” he said pointing out that sometimes the science interests, such as ecological modeling, don’t always line up with the regulatory or management needs on these different scales. “Sometimes you build a tool that doesn’t work or for the wrong reasons, or you’re not answering the right questions.”

Asking the right scientific questions and building the right tools also applies to identifying and preserving culturally significant areas.

“The Ocean SAMP was special in that it included a significant tribal input, and that hadn’t been part of an ocean planning process before,” said researcher Dave Robinson from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, a marine archaeologist working with the Narragansett Tribe to develop methodologies and protocols for identifying and protecting submerged cultural sites.

“Tribes in the U.S. most often don’t get a front seat in the process,” said Doug Harris discussing the value of stakeholder involvement at a previous Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium. “Fishermen are from the same community. They may come from different sectors, but we’re all going to sink or swim in this. What will the future be for my grandchildren and theirs?”

The dialog and development of relationships with the people involved, said Robinson, were the key components to the cultural and historical aspect to the Ocean SAMP, and are valuable in maintaining to further integrate tribal oral history and knowledge into the scientific process.

“The project is still underway,” he said noting two submerged sites found in Greenwich Bay and off of Block Island. “Ancestral sites are not resources, they’re spiritual places.”

But even the best-laid plans don’t always get it right.

“Be flexible,” said Grybowski, noting that the flexibility of the Ocean SAMP, which is undergoing a five-year review, is important to adapt to rapid changes within the industry, as well as the climate. “The planning process is only the beginning.”

One challenge in moving forward is “regulatory amnesia,” according to Fugate, explaining that a few years down the line people can often forget the policy direction. “Trying to keep it fresh and in people’s minds is a challenge.”

Other challenges that Fugate points out are data overload, not having an appropriate place to store and distribute that information, as well as evaluation of data.

Additional roadblocks practitioners described for managing ocean space include the sheer volume of user activity, as well as stakeholder cooperation and interagency coordination. But despite these challenges, MSP is needed more than ever as coastal and marine waterways become more crowded.

The notion of a ‘first come, first served’ no longer satisfies multiple competing uses and access to ocean resources, according to Bruce Carlisle, Director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, who said he’s seeing a sharp increase in new proposals for ocean development that aren’t only just wind related.

“We’re basing these plans on what we’ve known for the past 20 to 30 years, and what we measure in the water right now, and then we go forward,” said Paul Klarin from Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, explaining that while the future is largely unknown with multiple factors changing rapidly, making a best guess and recognizing failure early on are steps to move forward quickly.

 

 


 

Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications