What is it about the sea that draws so many of us to the coast and its offshore watery expanse? Recent statistics from NOAA’s State of the Coast show that coastal population density is on the rise, with nearly 39 percent of the nation’s population living in counties directly on the shoreline in 2010.
NOAA’s National Coastal Population Report (March 2013)
Numbers aside, what lures so many people to this dynamic place? For some, it may be the sound of the surf or the feel of the salty air, for others it can be culture or tradition, seaside childhood memories with family and friends. And of course, there are many for whom the connection to the sea is linked to livelihood and sustenance, the need to provide food for families, the desire to uphold a family’s heritage, the call to fish. But truly understanding the lure of the sea and our human connection to the ocean is an interesting and challenging endeavor. And an increasingly relevant concept to consider, as our population continues to grow and technology tempts us to use the sea in new ways, our oceans are getting busier and busier. With busier oceans, comes an increased potential for conflict amongst uses and users, and a growing need to reconsider how we manage ocean space.
How do we use the sea?
Until you really sit down and think about it, you probably never realized the many ways we use the ocean. For everything from swimming to sailing and all things recreational, to shipping, oil and gas, telecommunications and other industrial pursuits, to fishing and harvesting and collecting of marine resources of all kinds, both the living ones and the dead…the list of ocean uses is seemingly endless. If you include the supporting or regulating services, things like waste absorption and carbon sequestration, the list just grows and grows. The Common Language on Ocean Uses is a newly published list of ocean uses that strives to capture and describe the vast array of current ocean use activities, as well as those on the horizon. And remember that any list we make today is only a static snapshot, as new uses are continually evolving.
So, it’s hard to not wonder, with so many different uses of the ocean, how can we manage and protect ocean resources from over use or impacts of use conflict? First, we need to improve our understanding about ocean uses to learn more about where we engage in different types of uses and why. We also need to explore what drives use patterns and assess the tradeoffs amongst uses and related ecosystem services (e.g. recreation, jobs, transportation, etc). Admittedly not an easy task, this focus on ocean uses is a key element to coastal and marine spatial planning efforts underway throughout the nation right now.
Towards an improved understanding of the role of ocean uses in marine planning, NOAA has designed a participatory process to map ocean uses by tapping the expert knowledge of the people who use the sea and shore. NOAA’s Ocean Use Mapping team recently convened a group of experts to map ocean use patterns for a wide range of activities occurring in the marine waters off Washington State. Bringing people together to talk about their connection to the sea and paint the picture of ocean use in their area creates essential data for planning while building community awareness about the important role ocean uses play in managing marine resources. This effort, The Pacific Regional Ocean Uses Atlas project is one of a variety of NOAA projects designed to provide the critical data and services to support regional coastal and marine spatial planning.
What will the future seascape look like?
When you think out a few decades, how do you envision the seascape? Have you ever thought about that? It is a curious exercise, and one that prompts you to consider what you value most about the ocean and how that might change in the face of shifting climate, increasing reliance on marine resources, and new and evolving uses of the ocean.
But whatever happens, it is very likely that in years to come there will be more people using the sea and the shore. More people enjoying the ocean with new toys (like the Stand Up Paddleboards of today’s generation), exploring it with new tools (akin to the autonomous submersibles and robots we use now) and harvesting resources we never could before (e.g., emergent forms of offshore renewable energy).
So, when you stroll along the beach, surf your favorite point break, or go out on a fishing charter, stop for a minute to look around and count all the other kinds of activities you see taking place on the water and along the shore. Perhaps, like me, you will gain an appreciation for the delicate balance required to ensure that what lures us to the sea today will be there for other generations to enjoy in years to come.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.
~ Sea Fever by John Masefield