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GUEST COLUMN: REGIONAL PLAN CAN HELP GOVERNMENT UNDERSTAND FISHERMEN

One significant finding from the RPB plan is the data gap in the lobster and tuna fisheries – there simply aren’t enough good spatial data about where or how these fisheries operate. Federal agency staff who know little to nothing about the lobster fishery’s complex nature or its economic, social, and cultural significance to our coastal communities regularly make decisions that impact Maine’s fishing families and the businesses that depend on them. Ideally, these decisions would be made after conversations with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and outreach to industry trade associations, providing opportunities for those potentially affected to voice their concerns. But it does not always work out this way. That’s where the Northeast Regional Planning Body (RPB) comes in. The RPB is a group of representatives from nine federal agencies, six New England states, six federally-recognized tribes, and the New England Fisheries Management Council. RPB members spent the last four years developing an ocean plan for the region, a draft of which was released this spring. The draft plan doesn’t actually do a lot of “planning,” but it does begin to improve how federal agencies interact with state agencies and coastal stakeholders. The draft plan contains data and information about a variety of ocean uses, such as commercial shipping traffic, recreational boating patterns, and aspects of the ocean ecosystem. Even more important is the commitment by federal agencies to use this data and information in their existing decision-making or regulatory processes. These commitments focus primarily on using the data to identify where additional discussions, work, or emphasis should occur. In other words, instead of just looking at a particular spot and identifying that some fishing activity is taking place there, agencies are signing on to “go and talk to the right people.” These conversations are intended to draw out more site-specific information, including how that area is currently being used, how it fits into fishermen’s business plans, or how it might be used in the future. In addition to doing outreach for large projects like offshore wind turbines, the federal agencies participating in the RPB have committed to reaching out to industries that might be impacted by dredging and hydrographic surveys. They also understand that coastal communities have interests in specific ocean space and have agreed to consider the cumulative impact of any particular project on local stakeholders. Future RPB work will include research that creates a better understanding of the connection between ocean space, communities, and how environmental change can shift human uses. One significant finding from the RPB plan is the data gap in the lobster and tuna fisheries – there simply aren’t enough good spatial data about where or how these fisheries operate. Knowing where lobstermen fish is, however, only a start. The more important information for federal agencies to understand from conversations with fishermen is how other ocean uses impact fishing practices and businesses.  This knowledge can go a long way in better informing agencies’ decision-making processes for more mutually beneficial outcomes. To help the RPB, federal agencies, and developers better understand the intersection of the lobster fishery and ocean planning, the Island Institute recently completed a study designed to fill some of these data gaps, identify general concerns about new uses common across the fishery, and help federal agencies better understand the current context of the fishery. Our report also outlines some of the common concerns that fishermen have with changing ocean uses near where they fish.

The report is available at http://www.islandinstitute.org/resource/lobster-and-ocean-planning. The draft plan makes a good start on getting commitments to change federal agency culture in ways that increase awareness of and sensitivity to the concerns of Maine’s coastal communities about how the ocean is used. The process of translating commitment into action will be a slow one, but we hope that Maine fishermen will start to see the benefits of the RPB’s work over the next few years.

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