Planning For A Healthy New York Seascape

Imagine arriving home one day, excited to see how work is going on the beautiful new deck you're installing. But the contractor's in a snit because there's a truck in the driveway blocking his way. That would be the electrician your husband hired to fix that old faulty wiring in the kitchen. You knew he was coming but you didn't know it was today. And now the repair man can't access the fuse box because your son's emo band Strawberry Slo-Jam has taken over the basement.

What the heck is going on? Everyone in the family needs to access the house, but there's a little coordination problem. Here in the city of islands, we have a similar challenge with our own home waters. The rich, diverse ocean wilderness that is New Yorkers' heritage and responsibility is an incredible place to fish, swim, and play. Its amazing wildlife includes everything from sharks, sea turtles, and shorebirds to whales, dolphins, and deep sea coral.

A humpback whale feeding offshore near New York City. Image: Julie Larson Maher/WCS.

But this beautiful seascape - which contributes $22 billion to the state's GDP, supports more than 313,000 jobs, and offers countless recreational, cultural, and spiritual benefits - can also be crowded, noisy, and unpredictable. And it gets worse every day. A patchwork of more than 140 laws and 20 federal authorities currently govern the ocean, coasts, and lakes enjoyed by 20 million people.

Offshore wind installations are likely coming with the announcement of a proposed lease sale of 81,130 acres off of Long Island. Traffic at our already-busy port continues to increase while giant cargo ships grow ever larger thanks to maritime advances like the recent Panama Canal expansion. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events associated with climate change are reshaping our shores and threatening coastal communities.

Protecting the integrity of our ocean backyard requires us to understand how to accommodate all these uses. No one wants to wade through Strawberry Slo-Jam to get to their fuse box. That's where ocean planning comes in. Building on several years of work, New York and five of our neighboring states - together with federal agencies, tribes, and regional fisheries managers - have come together to create the first draft of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Action Plan.

Canyon Lobster. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2013 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM/USGS.

To do so, they worked with stakeholders and scientists to gather the most up-to-date information on ocean use by humans and wildlife to produce a document that provides a framework for sustainable economic development while conserving our vulnerable marine ecosystems. But if this plan is going to work, it needs the support of all who care about our ocean habitat.

This draft of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Action Plan is a great first step, but it's not perfect. To maintain commitment to the plan's Healthy Ocean Ecosystem goal, the plan needs to set December 2016 as a deadline for identifying habitat critical for the health of our area's fish, sea turtles, whales, and other marine life, and commit agencies to conserving areas of high biodiversity.

Better understanding these areas will enable us to more thoughtfully balance decisions on ocean development with ecological impacts, while also allowing for appropriate human activities to continue. The plan should also make certain that agencies identify a set of objective indicators of ocean health to enable regular evaluation of the plan's effectiveness in achieving its goals throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

Here at the Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium, and across all WCS's zoos in New York City, education staff and high school volunteer docents are engaging kids in songs about sea life and playing a newly developed ocean planning board game with visitors to raise awareness about these issues. We are encouraging visitors to compose letters and drawings and sign a petition in support of smarter marine planning that WCS will submit to the Regional Planning Body (RPB).

New York Aquarium staff fitting an acoustic tag on a sand tiger shark off the coast of Long Island. Image: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

In the meantime, the federal and state agencies that created the Mid-Atlantic Regional Ocean Action Plan are intent on collaboration and transparent dialogue among those who manage the uses of the ocean, and to give the public a chance to discuss present and emerging issues with decision-makers. WCS's New York Aquarium and zoos have engaged visitors to join in that conversation. The plan is available for review and comment through September 6.

Take the time to add your voice to those who realize the value in promoting ocean health and coordinating multiple human uses of our busy ocean. If we act together, we can gain control of the situation; plan for responsible, long-term use of our resources; and protect our beautiful ocean home. There's no reason we can't have our beautiful deck and some long-overdue rewiring at the same time. Okay...and maybe a little Strawberry Slo-Jam, too.