I recently attended the first-in-the-nation Northeast Regional Planning Body meeting in Portland and came away with mixed feelings. With a background as a lobsterman in the small midcoast town of Friendship, I decided a couple of years ago to follow and become involved in those aspects of the National Ocean Policy that affect me as both a fisherman and concerned individual.
I went to the meeting interested to see how this body, made up solely of federal officials, two representatives appointed from each state government and 10 representatives from Indian tribes located in the Northeast, would begin implementation of coastal and marine planning.
The goals of the planning, as set forth by the National Ocean Council, are to find ways to support sustainable ocean uses that contribute to the economy, while at the same time protecting, maintaining and restoring the ocean ecosystems. This would involve creating a regional plan to reduce conflicts among fishing, offshore energy, shipping conservation and recreation.
What I found was that, although I shared a hopeful and positive feeling surrounding the birth of this process, I also felt disheartened and disenfranchised by the federally mandated format itself. My initial vision had entailed a group made up of oceanographers, fishermen, conservation groups, tugboat operators and others with either a tradition of, or aspirations toward, ocean use. This is not the case.
Certainly I would also welcome the input and hard work brought to the table by the federal officials, as well as the knowledgeable and experienced state planners and agency heads that all need to be involved. This welcome also extends to the 10 tribal representatives whose expressions of concern about both their natural resources and lives as small village, subsistence fishermen, closely match my own.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that my community, and others like mine, are not well represented, and that an involved and informed citizen has to beg for inclusion into this process.
Now is the perfect time and place to alter the format of ocean planning enough to more directly include stakeholders, given that regional planning has the backing of most of the major conservation groups, scientific community, ocean renewable energy and other industries, all seeking to start the process off in a somewhat similar direction. This is an opportunity for this body to start with self-examination and come up with recommendations to transform the process from the beginning.
Continuing to chart a status-quo course of top-down planning would, in my mind, lead to a future of second guessing, protestations and eventually an “occupy oceans” mentality.
This is the point at which you might ask, “Well what do you suggest?”
Instead of the “How would I know? I’m a fisherman” route, allow me to ask for the help and guidance of those out there whose thoughts are more in tune with governance and the political sciences, that they may come to our aid with suggestions for alternative structures. Somehow there must be a means to invite traditional ocean users to the table, bringing their knowledge and experience to bear.
Stakeholder advisory groups have been mentioned as a possibility, but any such groups should be used from the beginning, to be a part of establishing a vision and the setting of goals, not just sought out after plans are drawn, to be queried as to, “Can you live with that?”
Please don’t get me wrong, as an “impacted stakeholder” and almost daily “ocean user” I fully support the National Ocean Policy and most of its many important directives, including the implementation of regional ocean planning. This process seems to offer a better alternative than single agency, case-by-case decision making. It has a regional goal in mind, a vision for the future of our oceans that should be a shared endeavor of fishermen, scientists, planners and business alike.
In that sense, I would just like to look up at the table and see a few faces that I can imagine seeing out on the water some day.
Richard Nelson is a lobsterman from Friendship.