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Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning

NOAA Sea Grant filling a crucial niche

Marine and coastal environments form complex interdependent webs of life where organisms of all sizes interact according to intricate rules of survival. Humans are integral nodes in this web, relying on marine and coastal systems for both livelihoods and recreation in a co-dependent relationship that requires the environment to remain healthy and vibrant.

How can we manage such complex ecosystems in a way that integrates ecological, social, and economic goals?  According to the National Ocean Policy, we need to use Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP).

The National Ocean Policy defines CMSP as a “comprehensive, adaptive, integrated, ecosystem-based, and transparent spatial planning process, based on sound science, for analyzing current and anticipated uses of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes areas.” By planning for specific uses of these resources, we can ensure we have set aside the right areas for different uses and thereby reduce user conflicts and environmental impacts.  CMSP is geared to preserve ecosystem functions so that economies, societies and the natural environment are balanced with one another into the future.

CMSP is a natural fit for NOAA Sea Grant. Research support for sound science, sustained facilitation and coordination, stakeholder communication and education––all hallmarks of CMSP—are the strengths of Sea Grant.

From all over the United States, Sea Grant-supported scientific research has expanded to meet the needs of interconnected social-natural ecosystems. Such research, integrated with policy, has helped pioneer institutional or interstate commitments that are working to forge a new way forward.           

Rhode Island offers a specific example of how Sea Grant’s contributions to CMSP are deeply entrenched. Rhode Island Sea Grant has worked with the RI Coastal Resources Management Council to develop and implement a CMSP tool known as Special Area Management Plans (SAMPs), affectionately called “tools with teeth”. SAMPs are scientific ecosystem-based management plans that comprehensively review ecosystems, regulatory environments and social structures, then propose guidance on regulations to be adopted by the state. Such guidance is closely tailored to the unique ecological and social conditions of each place. . In addition to developing six SAMPs for its rural, suburban and urban coasts, and island ecosystems, Rhode Island also developed the first interstate SAMP for ecosystems it shares with Connecticut. On July 22, 2011, Rhode Island’s 7th SAMP became the largest ever, covering nearly 1,500 square miles, including portions of Block Island, Rhode Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The Ocean SAMP as it is called also focuses on the state’s interest in developing renewable offshore energy from wind.

Map of the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP)

Rhode Island Ocean SAMP map.  Credit: Rhode Island Sea Grant

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. joined Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and other national and state leaders to recognize the pioneering Rhode Island Ocean SAMP and provide NOAA’s approval. Dr. Lubcheno lauded the plan and the cooperative effort that went into its development.  “This plan takes into account all ocean uses for enhancing commercial, recreational and environmental goals. This plan is what President Obama envisioned in the National Ocean Policy, and it sets a great example for other coastal states,” said Lubchenco.

NOAA’s approval of the Ocean SAMP under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act makes Rhode Island the first state to incorporate a comprehensive management plan in its coastal management program. The plan is the culmination of a two-year effort led by the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council with the assistance of the University of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Sea Grant program and Roger Williams University and significant input from other state, federal, tribal and local agencies. The SAMP incorporates extensive research and input from various stakeholders that address healthy habitats, commercial and recreational fishing, cultural heritage, recreation and tourism, and global climate change.

Ocean SAMP plan

“The pioneering Ocean SAMP is not only a template for better planning, it has allowed us to develop and reflect upon the skills needed to conduct diverse, long-term participatory processes,” says Barry Costa-Pierce, Director of Rhode Island Sea Grant and Professor of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island. “It is the best case I have ever seen of a well-thought out, organized eco-social process with a common language and clear goals. Ocean stewards everywhere will be attracted to not only the findings, but also to how a small group of people retained the interest and excitement of such diverse stakeholders.”



For more information:


NOAA Sea Grant



Rhode Island Sea Grant



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