The ocean off the Mid-Atlantic coast may seem to be a mass of open water, but it’s far from that, according to a draft plan for coordinating ocean activities from New York to Virginia.

It is crisscrossed by transatlantic cables, deep shipping lanes and areas designated for wind energy and sand mining, with environmentally rich areas scattered amid all the activity, said Laura McKay of the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.

“So much is going on out there,” she said. “It’s not just a blank, blue area.”

McKay was one of several members of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body to present a draft Ocean Action Plan last Monday via a webinar for the public. The plan, full of objectives and actions for meeting them, has been under development since 2013 and was released July 6.

It’s the first time a regional plan has been attempted for the Mid-Atlantic ocean, and similar efforts are going on in other regions around the country, according to the planning group.

The group’s goals are to promote a healthy ocean ecosystem and provide for sustainable ocean uses up to 200 nautical miles off the Mid-Atlantic states, said Federal Co-Lead Robert LaBelle of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

It’s supposed to do that by improving understanding of how the ocean is being used, and providing a forum for coordinating ocean management. It is also supposed to engage a broad range of people — from members of the general public and tribal members to industry, government and conservation workers — in ocean planning, said LaBelle.

As ships get bigger and require deeper channels and harbors, which is happening now because of the recent opening of the expanded Panama Canal, there will be new pressures on the ocean, said Chris Scraba of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Two of the 10 busiest ports in the nation are in the Mid-Atlantic, in New York/New Jersey, and Hampton Roads, Va., with Baltimore and Philadelphia not far behind, and “ninety percent of the world’s trade is conducted on the oceans,” he said.

Scraba said it is economically critical to ensure that maritime commerce continues to flow in a safe, secure manner with a minimum of conflict, while also protecting the ocean environment.

State Co-Lead Gwynne Schultz of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said there is also going to be an increase in undersea infrastructure, which is equipment and technology placed in or anchored to the sea floor.

About 97 percent to 99 percent of our international digital and voice communication travels through undersea cables, she said.

“And in the future offshore wind energy is likely to require multiple cable systems,” she said.

About a half million acres off New Jersey has already been leased for potential wind farms, according to Clean Ocean Action Executive Director Cindy Zipf.

All that equipment will need to be coordinated carefully, Schultz said.

National security and military uses, wind energy development, fishing, aquaculture, sand management, recreation, and tribal rights are also factors that need to be weighed.

The plan, available at boem.gov/Ocean-Action-Plan, is now in a comment period and written comments must be submitted by Sept. 6.

A 2010 Presidential Executive Order that established a National Ocean Policy to guide the protection, maintenance, and restoration of America's oceans and coasts is driving the regional effort.

The plan doesn’t have the force of law, LaBelle said, “but it will be great to improve the way we work together.”

That lack of teeth has some concerned.

“We are reading the plan like everybody else is now. We think there's some really good language in there ... but we have questions about how it will be implemented,” said Zachary J. Lees, Ocean and Coastal Policy Attorney for the Highlands, Monmouth County based nonprofit Clean Ocean Action.

“It has to use existing authority, which brings up the question of, ‘How will it use that ... Will agencies make commitments?’“ said Lees.

Zipf expressed other concerns at an open house “listening session” on the plan Thursday night at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, Monmouth County. About 50 people attended, many from environmental organizations.

She is worried that designating some areas “environmentally rich” may imply other areas are not valuable and lead to unintended consequences, such as overdevelopment of areas not given the designation. She recommended proceeding carefully and using different language to designate some places that have special features and unique density of life instead.

But Natural Resources Defense Council Ocean Planner Alison Chase said the environment suffers when experts delay identifying places that are of special environmental significance.

“If we don’t start to decide where the special places are, they won’t be there in the future,” she said.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean will hold a workshop in Baltimore in August to better define what constitutes an environmentally rich area and will also discuss Zipf’s concerns, said Joe Atangan of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command. It will be open to the public and information will be posted at midatlanticocean.org/.

Zipf also would have liked the plan to address potential oil and gas exploration, and the issues of seismic testing and potential development of Liquified Natural Gas facilities, she said. Several LNG facilities had been proposed for the New York/New Jersey port area.

Oil and gas exploration has been put on hold, with the March decision by the Obama Administration to block drilling in the Atlantic for five years, she said. But companies are still applying to BOEM to do seismic testing for future oil and gas drilling off the coast.

Seismic testing uses large air guns to repeatedly send blasts of air at the ocean floor. They can reflect back information about buried oil and gas deposits.

The testing can kill fish and larvae, interrupt the feeding, mating and migratory patterns of aquatic species and cause them to leave habitats, according to a June 30 letter from U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-6th, Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and five others.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

Copy desk chief / comics blogger

Print Director

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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