In 1969 (President Richard Nixon was just starting his first term) the Stratton Commission (the Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources) released its report, Our Nation and the Sea: a plan for national action, a comprehensive, forward-looking report that reviewed the status of most areas of American ocean policy. The report emphasised three major issues: the oceans as the “New Frontier,” the need to protect the coastal environment from overexploitation and pollution (including the establishment of a national coastal zone management program), and a detailed plan to reorganize Federal marine and coastal programs—including the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established in 1972.

Forty years after the Stratton Commission report in 2009 an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force was established to develop recommendations for America’s first national ocean policy. In July 2010 President Barack Obama signed an executive order titled, “Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes”, directing federal agencies to implement the recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (IOPTF) under the guidance of a new National Ocean Council (NOC).

The executive order built on efforts in the previous decade and established an ambitious “national policy to ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources, enhance the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies, preserve our maritime heritage, support sustainable uses and access, provide for adaptive management to enhance our understanding of and capacity to respond to climate change and ocean acidification, and coordinate with our national security and foreign policy interests.” The president tasked federal agencies, through the formation of regional planning bodies, with the responsibility of developing regional ocean plans.

The Executive Order established a NOC under the leadership of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the heads of more than 20 federal agencies. The NOC also established a Governance Coordinating Committee comprised of 18 officials from state, tribal, and local governments. The recommendations of the IOPTF included a national policy for the stewardship of the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes, and most importantly, the implementation of integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management throughout the largest EEZ in the world.

Nine regional marine spatial plans, covering the entire EEZ of the USA, would be developed cooperatively among federal, state, tribal, and local governments with substantial stakeholder and public participation. The nine regional planning areas were: the Northeast; Mid-Atlantic; South Atlantic; Gulf of Mexico; Caribbean; West Coast; Alaska/Arctic; Pacific Islands; and the Great Lakes. The regional plans would be developed voluntarily.

The geographic scope of the planning area is the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone, and the continental shelf. It extends inland to the mean high water line, and includes bays and estuaries. Activities that occur beyond the EEZ would be considered in the plans if they potentially affect resources or human activities with the planning areas.

The NOC was charged to work with the states and tribes to create nine regional planning bodies for the development of regional MSP plans. A federal, state, and tribal person would co-lead each regional planning body. The NOC was to prepare guidance for regional planning bodies in meeting the consultative process requirements to ensure consistency across regions. Each regional planning body was to develop a work plan that would be approved by the NOC before its implementation.

The recommendations of the IOPTF identified essential elements that need to be addressed in the regional work plans including: the identification of clear, measurable objectives; engagement of stakeholders throughout the process; consultation with scientists and other technical experts; development of alternative future spatial management scenarios; and implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The NOC is establishing national objectives, national outcome-based performance measures, and guidance to promote national consistency in the development and implementation of the marine spatial plans. Regional performance measures developed by the regional planning bodies would be used to track improvements toward stated marine spatial plan objectives.

In 2013 the NOC published a Marine Planning Handbook that provides more specific information and guidance on regional planning bodies, regional participation, and marine plans.The regional marine spatial plans would not be regulatory. However, they would be used to guide decision making, e.g., permitting, and participating agencies would adhere to the final marine spatial plans to the extent possible, consistent with existing authorities. Once a plans approved, federal, state, and tribal authorities would implement them through their respective legal authorities.

Regional planning bodies are not regulatory. Accordingly, they have no independent legal authority to regulate or otherwise direct Federal, State, tribal, or local government actions. Members do not delegate to the regional planning body or any other entity the decision-making or legal authority of the government they represent. Likewise, regional planning body actions do not alter or supersede any legal authority, including jurisdiction or decision-making authority over a matter.

Two regional planning bodies have completed their first round of planning: the Northeast Regional Planning Body and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body. These plans were the first approved in 2016 by the National Ocean Council. A regional planning bodies have also been established in the West Coast and Pacific Islands regions.

Northeast Atlantic Region

The Northeast Regional Planning Body (RPB), composed of representatives from the six New England states, six federally-recognized American Indian tribes, nine federal agencies, and the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), was formed in 2012. Substantial funding for the MSP process was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The plan identifies three goals: healthy ocean and coastal ecosystems; effective decision-making; and compatibility among past, current, and future ocean uses. Although the plan imposes no new regulatory requirements, it proposes the use of data; intergovernmental coordination between federal agencies, tribes, and states; and stakeholder engagement to guide and inform RPB agency activities toward meeting these three goals. The plan is another step toward advancing a more comprehensive and ecosystem-based approach to managing human activities in the ocean. The plan will change over time, evolving to better handle emerging issues and incorporating new information.

The plan is a forward-looking document intended to strengthen intergovernmental coordination, planning, and policy implementation, while at the same time enhancing the public’s ability to participate in the process of managing ocean resources. Its initiatives and actions aim to improve the process of data collection and dissemination, enhance stakeholder contributions and engagement, locate potential areas of coflict, identify additional information and science needs, and promote core goals that will protect and enhance New England’s marine ecosystem.

The first formal meeting of the RPB occurred in 2012. As the RPB began its work, it engaged multiple audiences and stakeholders in an effort to inform the development of ocean planning goals and to establish reference information on human activities and the ecosystem. The RPB held public meetings and initiated several projects to gather this information, collaborating with scientists, the fishing industry, boaters, the recreation community, and environmental groups, as well as leaders in the shipping, aquaculture, and energy industries.

In 2014, this process led to the formation and adoption of the ocean planning goals, objectives, and an associated work plan, the “Framework for Ocean Planning in the Northeast United States”. The work plan detailed the tasks the RPB would undertake to develop the plan—including the continued development of peer- and expert-reviewed data through stakeholder engagement and expert work groups.

The RPB directed the plan development process and developed the substance of the plan. From the outset, it did so along multiple simultaneous tracks, each of which informed and built on the others. Formal RPB meetings were convened roughly every six months, and each of these meetings included time for public comment. Prior to each meeting, the RPB convened public workshops and gatherings focused on upcoming topics and decisions. RPB decisions always followed a consensus-based approach that welcomed and incorporated public and stakeholder input. Seven multi-day public meetings of the RPB occurred, beginning in November 2012 and leading to the issuance of the draft plan in spring 2016. Following a series of public meetings across New England during a public comment period from May through July 2016, the RPB revised the draft plan.

The plan was approved by the National Ocean Council in December 2016.

Mid-Atlantic Region

In April 2013 the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body was formed with representatives from six states, two federally-recognised tribes, eight federal agencies, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council—and the regional planning process began. Substantial funding was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. One year later the PPRB approved the “Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Planning Framework”. The framework articulates the RPB’s vision and geographic focus (New York – Virginia) and establishes a set of guiding principles, goals, and objectives. It was developed collaboratively and approved by the RPB to guide the creation of the plan.

The development of a Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Assessment (ROA) served as a snapshot and information resource for the regional ocean planning process. The ROA provided an engaging and reader-friendly distillation of information on the region’s ocean resources and selected topics in ocean planning for decision-makers, stakeholders, and the broader public. The ROA brought together and summarised best available information on the ocean ecosystem and ocean uses from New York to Virginia. The ROA also provides links to more in-depth information sources, including a Mid-Atlantic Data Portal.

In July 2016 the PRB released the draft plan for public comment. The draft plan was the result of three years of collaborative planning efforts to address complex ocean management challenges and advance the two goals of the Mid-Atlantic RPB: (1) promoting a healthy ocean ecosystem; and (2) planning and providing for sustainable ocean uses in the Mid- Atlantic region.

The plan provides tools, information, and processes that enhance the capacity of federal, state, and tribal entities and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to carry out their missions, work together more effectively, and serve the needs of stakeholders in the region. The plan does not change existing authorities or create new mandates at the Federal, State, and Tribal levels. Rather, actions within the plan aim to improve the effectiveness of Federal, State, Tribal, and MAFMC implementation of their respective responsibilities in the ocean waters off of the Mid-Atlantic region.

To specifically address the RPB’s goals and objectives, 44 management actions are described in the plan. The actions address healthy ocean ecosystems, sustainable ocean uses, science and research, and performance monitoring and evaluation.

The plan was approved by the National Ocean Council in December 2016.

The plan will be implemented primarily by federal and state agencies and tribal governments through the operations of their existing staff and programs since actions in the plan are directly supportive of their missions. Where additional resources may be required to address specific actions, RPB members may draw on networks of partners, existing initiatives, and public-private partnership models that engage relevant sectors and interests. Leveraging of existing and partner resources will be a primary focus of RPB efforts. If necessary, the RPB will update implementation commitments to reflect available resources and capacity.

Government processes will improve in several ways as a result of this plan, and those will also benefit ocean users and other stakeholders. For example, the plan and Data Portal provide materials that will help agencies and project proponents reduce time and effort associated with the environmental permitting process, including:

  • An extraordinary amount of newly accessible data and derived products that represent marine life and human activities, developed in collaboration with, and vetted for publication and use by a wide range of agencies, subject-matter experts, and stakeholders. Increased information in the Data Portal will serve as a central location for agencies and project proponents alike to reference and consider, resulting in a common “data vocabulary” for discussions to begin from;
  • Good practices that enhance the use of these newly accessible data and support better coordination and communication among agencies, project proponents, and stakeholders. Agencies are committing to working better together, with stakeholders, with states, and with tribes; and
  • Actions that will provide technical products and outreach to support permitting and management decisions.

Updates will be posted on this website as MSP activities in the United States of America develop.

Last updated: August 2018