From the high-tide mark to the fishing grounds two hundred miles out to sea, the ocean is a busy place. Shipping routes, dredging activity, commercial fishing, seabirds, critical marine mammal habitat, eelgrass beds, whale watchers, kayakers, offshore wind-farm development, aquaculture, undersea cables — and that’s just the beginning of a long list of marine activities poised to clash. Trying to figure out where those interests overlap is like trying to untangle a hopelessly fouled line during high seas at night when the engine fails.There’s a lot to keep track of.

A Draft?Northeast Ocean Plan that has been under development for four years was introduced to the public by Betsy Nicholson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the first time in Rockland on Monday, June 6. The plan offers the first real attempt to make sense of those overlapping interests in a way that anyone doing work on, in, near, or under the water can use. Ecosystem health is at the heart of the Plan, which is underpinned by sound scientific data and a commitment to inter-agency communication to create science-based policy, according to Nicholson. 

The Ocean Plan also offers the first mapping of recreational ocean use in the Northeast, said Nicholson. According to the draft, the marine recreation economic impact for the region was $18.6 billion in 2013, as compared to the regional commercial fishing landings take of $1.2 billion in 2012.

It will also be the first comprehensive plan that coordinates the 140 laws that regulate ocean activities in the Northeast, said Nicholson.

The Draft Northeast Ocean Plan covers from the high-tide zone in New England and the Gulf of Maine to Long Island Sound and 200 miles out to sea. Developed by representatives from nine federal agencies, six New England states, six tribes, the New England Fisheries Management Council, and advisory representatives from New York and Canada, the Northeast Regional Planning Body developed the Northeast Ocean Plan as part of the 2010 Executive Order that established National Ocean Policy. 

The public comment period on the Draft Northeast Ocean Plan is open until July 25. The comments will be incorporated into the final stages of the planning process, with a complete Ocean Plan submitted for approval before the end of the year. It is scheduled to go into effect within the next six months. 

Over the past four years, the Regional Planning Body  —which includes representatives from NOAA, the Navy, the Army Corps, the Maine Departments of Marine Resources and Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry,  Coastal Zone Management programs, the Micmac, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy tribes, and others — has sought public and scientific input through hundreds of informal gatherings and public meetings, according to Nicholson. The plan was drafted based on consensus among the Regional Planning Body.

A Mid-Atlantic Ocean Plan and Pacific plans are also in development, but the Northeast Ocean Plan will likely be the first completed and implemented. 

The 2010 Executive Order does not establish new laws, regulations, or penalties. It does require that federal agencies coordinate their marine-based planning and activities and invites state, regional, and local interests to coordinate their efforts. The Plan is a guide, not a prescription or regulation, said Nicholson. It focuses on ten primary areas: marine life and habitat, cultural resources, marine transportation, national security, commercial and recreational fishing, recreation, energy and infrastructure, acquaculture, offshore sand resources (dredged for inshore use), and restoration. 

The Ocean Plan includes an active, online planning tool  — the Northeast Ocean Data Portal — that federal agency partners have committed to keeping up-to-date with scientific data. The Portal can layer overlapping kinds of information specific to a certain area or activity and lead the user to the agency and the regulations specific to that search. 

If it is effective, the Plan and the Portal could radically streamline marine planning and increase its reliability across all sectors, from ecological monitoring to shipping to commercial fishing. That’s no small task with ocean dynamics in the Northeast swiftly changing with warmer sea temperatures, more fresh water from polar melting, higher sea levels, and the certainty that an Arctic shipping route will open in the near future. 

Those who attended the Rockland debut of the Draft  Ocean Plan were not entirely comfortable that the process leading up to the meeting had broad enough input from coastal and island communities, and from in-shore fishermen.

 Richard Nelson, a Friendship lobster fisherman who has followed the four-year planning process, expressed frustration that the plan did not include more input from coastal fishermen and coastal communities. Those communities are now undergoing significant changes as a result of changing marine use priorities, he said. 

“In this Draft, it sounds like a eulogy for fishing,” said Nelson. “It’s an industry that has been here for 400 years.”

Nelson said that while the fishing industry has changed dramatically, it is not dead, nor are the working fishermen who are trying to navigate the new marine uses on the horizon, such as offshore wind development.

“We need to expand our definition of culture to include fishing culture,” said Nelson. 

Bonnie Post of Owls Head agreed, saying that ambassadors for the cultural importance of fishing communities should have a full seat at the table, not four minutes under timed public comment to express their concerns.  

“The Micmac and the Maliseets do have a seat, but the coastal communities don’t,” said Post. “That’s a concern for me.”

The draft of the Northeast Ocean Plan will be introduced in nine regional public meetings in New England, with two more to follow in Maine: one in Ellsworth on Monday, June 20, and another in Portland on Thursday, June 30. 

Comments from the meetings and through the website will be used to finalize the Northeast Ocean Plan before it is submitted for final review later this year. 

Go to to see the Draft Ocean Plan, use the draft version of the Northeast Ocean Data Portal,  submit comments for the public record, and see information about upcoming public meetings throughout New England. 

Comments can also be submitted via email at or through the mail to the Northeast Regional Planning Body, 55 Great Republic Drive, Glouster, MA 01930.

The public comment period closes July 25.