In 1969 (President Richard Nixon was just starting his first term) the Stratton Commission (the Commission on Marine Science, Engineering and Resources) released its report, Our Nation and the Sea: a plan for national action, a comprehensive, forward-looking report that reviewed the status of most areas of American ocean policy. The report emphasised three major issues: the oceans as the “New Frontier,” the need to protect the coastal environment from overexploitation and pollution (including the establishment of a national coastal zone management program), and a detailed plan to reorganize Federal marine and coastal programs—including the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) established in 1972.
Forty years after the Stratton Commission report in 2009 an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force was established to develop recommendations for America’s first national ocean policy. In July 2010 President Barack Obama signed an executive order titled, “Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes”, directing federal agencies to implement the recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (IOPTF) under the guidance of a new National Ocean Council (NOC).
The executive order built on efforts in the previous decade and established an ambitious “national policy to ensure the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources, enhance the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies, preserve our maritime heritage, support sustainable uses and access, provide for adaptive management to enhance our understanding of and capacity to respond to climate change and ocean acidification, and coordinate with our national security and foreign policy interests.” The president tasked federal agencies, through the formation of regional planning bodies, with the responsibility of developing regional ocean plans.
The Executive Order established a NOC under the leadership of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the heads of more than 20 federal agencies. The NOC also established a Governance Coordinating Committee comprised of 18 officials from state, tribal, and local governments. The recommendations of the IOPTF included a national policy for the stewardship of the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes, and most importantly, the implementation of integrated, ecosystem-based coastal and marine spatial planning and management throughout the largest EEZ in the world.
Nine regional marine spatial plans, covering the entire EEZ of the USA, would be developed cooperatively among federal, state, tribal, and local governments with substantial stakeholder and public participation. The nine regional planning areas were: the Northeast; Mid-Atlantic; South Atlantic; Gulf of Mexico; Caribbean; West Coast; Alaska/Arctic; Pacific Islands; and the Great Lakes. The regional plans would be developed voluntarily.
The geographic scope of the planning area is the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone, and the continental shelf. It extends inland to the mean high water line, and includes bays and estuaries. Activities that occur beyond the EEZ would be considered in the plans if they potentially affect resources or human activities with the planning areas.
The NOC was charged to work with the states and tribes to create nine regional planning bodies for the development of regional MSP plans. A federal, state, and tribal person would co-lead each regional planning body. The NOC was to prepare guidance for regional planning bodies in meeting the consultative process requirements to ensure consistency across regions. Each regional planning body was to develop a work plan that would be approved by the NOC before its implementation.
The recommendations of the IOPTF identified essential elements that need to be addressed in the regional work plans including: the identification of clear, measurable objectives; engagement of stakeholders throughout the process; consultation with scientists and other technical experts; development of alternative future spatial management scenarios; and implementation, monitoring and evaluation. The NOC is establishing national objectives, national outcome-based performance measures, and guidance to promote national consistency in the development and implementation of the marine spatial plans. Regional performance measures developed by the regional planning bodies would be used to track improvements toward stated marine spatial plan objectives.
In 2013 the NOC published a Marine Planning Handbook (see References) that provides more specific information and guidance on regional planning bodies, regional participation, and marine plans.The regional marine spatial plans would not be regulatory. However, they would be used to guide decision making, e.g., permitting, and participating agencies would adhere to the final marine spatial plans to the extent possible, consistent with existing authorities. Once a plans approved, federal, state, and tribal authorities would implement them through their respective legal authorities.
Regional planning bodies are not regulatory. Accordingly, they have no independent legal authority to regulate or otherwise direct Federal, State, tribal, or local government actions. Members do not delegate to the regional planning body or any other entity the decision-making or legal authority of the government they represent. Likewise, regional planning body actions do not alter or supersede any legal authority, including jurisdiction or decision-making authority over a matter.
Two regional planning bodies have completed their first round of planning: the Northeast Regional Planning Body and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Body (see Atlantic Regions). These plans were the first approved in 2016 by the National Ocean Council. A regional planning bodies have also been established in the West Coast and Pacific Islands regions.