Smart Ocean Planning

rhode island, Narragansett bay, sunset
Osprey, Herreshoff S-class, Sheldon and Sandra Whitehouse, IYRS smart ocean planning, science-based management decisionssailing events mapsailing events map in Rhode Island2012 Northeast Recreational Boating Survey
April 2014
Sandra Whitehouse, Ph.D. Senior Policy Advisor Ocean Conservancy
How sailors have a voice in the future of our oceans

Living in Newport, Rhode Island, sailing has been a favorite activity with family and friends since my youth, now my husband and I have the pleasure of owning and sailing Osprey, pictured above. 

As a child, when I wasn’t sailing I was at the beach collecting crabs and snails. Ultimately this led to my becoming a marine biologist, coastal manager and ocean policy advisor. So, it is personal to me that our oceans are healthy, are used sustainably, and support our coastal communities like Newport.

The goals of protecting, maintaining and restoring ecosystem health, supporting sustainable uses, and preserving maritime heritage are the foundation of the National Ocean Policy.

Any sailor knows that while the oceans (and Great Lakes) may appear empty, there is a lot of activity: shipping, commercial and recreational fishing, and ferries to name a few. More and more projects are being proposed that require fixed structures: offshore LNG facilities, wind farms and aquaculture operations. If we are going to maintain our existing uses and realize the growth opportunities that the ocean affords, while conserving the ecological resources that make it all possible, we need to look at the big picture and move beyond single-sector management. We need all stakeholders, including sailors and their representative organizations, to engage in defining the future of our ocean spaces.

One of the states that took a proactive and comprehensive approach to ocean management is Rhode Island. In 2010 they completed the Rhode Island Special Area Management Plan (SAMP). This plan is now being implemented and used to site a pilot wind turbine project in a manner that has reduced conflicts among uses and minimized environmental impacts. The SAMP is a good example of smart ocean planning that is based on the best available information of human uses and environmental parameters.

Of interest to the sailing community is the chapter on recreation and tourism. This chapter compiled information about the past and present use of waters for offshore sailboat racing as well as information about the economic value of sailing events and activities. Two of the maps that were created by the SAMP are shown in the slideshow above. This kind of information is critical for managers as they consider project proposals.

Sailing is important to the state’s economy and integral to its culture. That is why the areas characterized by an especially high concentration of boating activity were designated as Areas of Particular Concern. This means that the Coastal Resources Management Council (the coastal and ocean management authority in Rhode Island) has adopted the goal of protecting these areas from large-scale offshore development. So the buoy racing areas off Block Island for example are now recognized as having high human use value for sailing and are protected. This would not have been possible without the participation of the sailing organizations that helped the state government officials better understand the importance of the sailing industry to the state, and helped the state map the areas which are most frequently used.

This type of planning approach is now being utilized in federal waters through the National Ocean Policy. The  Policy defined nine planning regions for the United States and territories. Currently, two of the regions that want to create smart ocean plans are underway within their federal waters (throughout the Exclusive Economic Zone, approximately 200 nautical miles). The Northeast Regional Planning Body (NERPB) was launched in 2012. One of the first data sets identified as inadequate was information about recreational boating activity. That’s why the NERBP worked with a number of partners to conduct a recreational boating survey. Recreational boaters helped design and implement the survey, shared data on their trips and expenditures as well as their opinions on boating compatibility with other ocean uses.

The results revealed that in 2012, 907,000 boating trips on the ocean generated approximately $3.5 billion and the equivalent of nearly 27,000 year-round jobs in the Northeast region alone. The data collected was also used to generate maps of popular recreational boating locations, which anyone can access through the Northeast Ocean Data Portal. Now decision-makers can use this information to make smart planning decisions that consider the importance of the recreational boating community. As in the state waters of Rhode Island, the federal waters of the Northeast will have a comprehensive, proactive plan that provides guidance to ocean management agencies about what the future should look like. A planning effort has also been initiated in the Mid-Atlantic region (2013) by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body including an associated data portal where they are gathering information on recreational boating.

Sailors can help the planners by bringing information into the process and explaining how certain areas are used. They can also tell their Congressional delegation that smart-ocean planning is important to ensure that the next generation of sailors can continue to enjoy our coastal and ocean waters.

Take Action

You can make a difference. Follow these steps to create a positive future for the ocean.

Take Action
  • Attend NERPB meetings (the next is scheduled for Wednesday, June 25th through Friday, June 27th, 2014, location TBA) and join the NERPB mailing list.
  • Keep informed by signing up for Ocean Conservancy’s monthly ocean planning newsletter. Contact Jayni Rasmussen at with your name, location and interest in smart ocean planning.
  • Write or call your congressional delegates and ask them to support and fund smart ocean planning efforts. 
  • Learn more about ocean planning by watching two great films by Ocean Frontiers.
  • Participate in recreational boating surveys, as they become available in your region.