Have you heard of “marine spatial planning?” If not, then you will soon. Marine spatial planning is akin to land use zoning for the ocean. More precisely, it is the process of using a variety of data and other information about marine resources, and human uses of those resources, to develop a spatial map of existing or preferred uses in the ocean. And, it is now underway along the Washington Coast. This sort of “zoning” or mapping makes imminent sense from a planning perspective, and is now possible even in our vast oceans due to advancements in GPS technology and computer-based geographic information systems (GIS). Even as we speak, officials at the Washington State Department of Ecology are working with other agencies and local stakeholders on the beginnings of a spatial plan for Washington’s coastal waters.

Recognizing the benefits of marine spatial planning to improve resource management and address use conflicts, Washington’s legislature enacted the Marine Waters Planning and Management Act (MWPMA) in 2010 (now codified at Chapter 43.372 RCW). Among other things, the MWPMA called for the formation of a “marine interagency team,” (now known as the State Ocean Caucus) and directed that team, in consultation with other agencies along the West Coast, to develop a comprehensive marine management plan for Washington’s Coast. The Act requires the marine management plan to promote “protection and restoration of ecosystem processes,” “ensure public access,” and “address potential impacts of climate change and sea level rise,” while at the same time protecting and encouraging “working waterfronts and…the infrastructure necessary to sustain marine industry, commercial shipping, shellfish aquaculture, and other water-dependent uses.” This is no small task!

In January 2011, as an initial step toward achieving these lofty goals, the state produced a legislative report in consultation with tribes, federal agencies and other stakeholders that assessed MWPMA’s requirements and recommended ways to meet those requirements through the planning process.

That planning process is now underway with various projects falling into the following categories:

  • Mapping
  • Ecosystem Assessment
  • Data Tools
  • Stakeholder Outreach

The Department of Ecology has also formed the Washington Coastal Marine Advisory Council to advise the State Ocean Caucus by providing local perspectives on marine resource issues, projects and conflicts. The Marine Advisory Council is made up of representatives from a broad ranges of interests, including regulatory agencies, commercial fishing, conservation, shellfish aquaculture, ports, economic development, shipping, recreational fishing, and science. The next meeting of Marine Advisory Council is scheduled for June 5, 2013.

More information about marine spatial planning and updates about this important project are available on the State Ocean Caucus’s website.