By Vikki Spruill
When we look out to the blue horizon, the ocean seems like a calm, vast space. But what we see on the surface of the water is deceiving — the ocean is alive with activity and it is crowded with wildlife and industrial uses. Like urban sprawl on land, the demand for space in our oceans and on our coasts is growing. New renewable energy and aquaculture facilities, commercial fishing, recreation, offshore drilling and shipping are all competing for space, and our demands continue to grow. Our ocean is getting crowded at a time when it is vulnerable to major changes.
Climate change is damaging the ocean — temperatures are rising and ocean acidification is taking place as the water absorbs the excess carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. In addition to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we must protect ocean ecosystems the best we can in the face of our growing industrial demands, to help them remain resilient against the threat of climate change.
Protections are critical. A healthy ocean is essential to our health and the stability of our economy. The ocean is the engine that drives our climate. It provides much of the oxygen we breathe and food we eat. It is also important to our economy — more than $1 trillion, or one-tenth of the nation’s annual gross domestic product, is generated from the coasts.
We need to bring order to the ocean and provide a framework for balancing ocean conservation and competing interests, which can be achieved through a comprehensive planning approach called Marine Spatial Planning. It is already being used effectively by other countries — and is under way in states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island — to do just that. It puts a process in place to manage the ecosystem as a whole and to evaluate cumulative impacts of the many uses of the ocean.