Space Invaders – Should You Keep Your Distance in the Ocean?

Growing up going to the beach along the mid-Atlantic coast, I used to gaze out at the open ocean for hours on end, basking in the sun. Only seeing the occasional ferry, cargo ship, pelican, and (if I was lucky) dolphin, the ocean seemed like vast, endless, open water. Now, working on ocean planning projects, my perspective has changed.

To ocean planners the ocean is actually a very busy place. And, after all, you can’t see what’s lurking below the surface. When three dimensional ocean data are mapped in a two dimensional environment, it appears as though the ocean is very crowded and that the data are surficial. In reality, some ocean data encompass the seafloor, the seabed, the water column, the sea surface, and even the air column. This animation illustrates the three-dimensionality of ocean data.

Graphic of ocean bed.

Be Careful Space Invader – Avoid Ocean Conflicts!

When developing an ocean plan, you should be aware of all the data that need to be taken into account when planning for offshore development, as conflicts need to be avoided and some locations are off limits for development. Within your area of interest you should look at data sets that might pose conflicts, such as Danger Zones and Restricted Areas and Marine Protected Areas to know the development restrictions. With offshore wind energy being such a hot topic, various agencies, managers, and stakeholders who have a role during the planning process are concerned with ocean conflicts. BOEM has to make sure they provide all the information required under the National Environmental Policy Act prior to making an area available for lease. Developers have to submit their own information toward an Environmental Impact Statement before gaining approval for construction in order to make sure the development doesn’t pose any major environmental impacts. The U.S. Coast Guard wants to be sure the development will not pose significant impacts on maritime safety. Department of Defense needs to ensure that its current operating areas are not impacted severely by wind farm development. The public wants to make sure the offshore wind farm will live in perfect harmony in their oceanfront vista. View this example interactive map in the Map Gallery that can be a useful tool in communicating to the public that there will be minimal or no impact to the ocean view.

Nobody Likes an Ocean Space Invader…Or Do They?

Many ocean uses are actually compatible. Ocean data can be useful in making this determination. Viewing several data sets together, and understanding those data sets and to which dimension of the ocean they apply, is valuable in determining these compatibilities.

For example, offshore wind farms or oil rigs provide hard structure bottom habitat for fish and other organisms that would otherwise not be found in some areas. Rigs to reefs programs have been turning oil rigs into reef habitat (photo credit: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department). And since more fish would be attracted to this new location, more recreational and commercial fishing opportunities may be available. This clickable visualization better explains some of these data compatibilities.

Under water image of fish.

While some ocean uses do pose certain conflicts, some of those conflicts can be minimized with the right amount of planning. With several species of endangered whales migrating along the east and west coasts, ships have to be careful to avoid these magnificent creatures. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) has worked with several agencies and organizations to use shipping traffic data from along with marine mammals data to make changes to shipping traffic and help avoid collisions and improve maritime safety. Marine mammal sightings data can determine when these creatures will frequent sanctuary waters in higher populations.
Whale_and_ShipThis has led to regulations that reduce the speed of ships in some locations at certain times of the year. Using the same data, ONMS has worked with several agencies and organizations to make changes to the shipping lanes. Some lanes have been narrowed to reduce the areas within sanctuary waters where ships are permitted; some lanes have been extended to reduce the speed of ships farther out as ships approach sanctuary waters; some shipping lanes have been shifted to reduce the shipping intersection within sanctuary waters. This has been successful within Stellwagen Bank NMS on the east coast, and within the Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries on the west coast. It’s important to make sure we can all use the ocean harmoniously with minimal impacts to each other.

For more information on why specific data sets should be used in ocean planning, visit the So What page. And watch out for those space invaders!

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