US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Spotlight on Ocean Uses

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Various Photos of the ocean being used

America is an ocean nation. Most Americans live near the coast and we use the ocean routinely for recreation, commerce, national security, sustenance, education, and cultural and spiritual renewal. Understanding, celebrating and nurturing those diverse ocean connections – their origins, values and impacts – is fundamental to sustaining healthy and productive seas for this and future generations.

The human footprint on the ocean is growing, and the expansion of existing and emerging ocean uses requires new and forward-looking approaches to comprehensive ocean planning. To meet this challenge, NOAA's National Marine Protected Areas Center (MPA Center) is developing a portfolio of place-based ocean planning tools designed to help coastal communities better understand the drivers, patterns, conflicts and benefits of ocean uses along their shores. The main components of this endeavor are summarized below.

Newly Updated: A Common Language of Ocean Uses
Planning and managing the diverse suite of existing and new ocean uses requires clear and consistent terms to describe, map and evaluate them. To meet this need, the MPA Center has developed a Common Language of Ocean Uses that provides practical, intuitive, and regionally flexible definitions of a wide range of typical human uses. Based on five years of ocean use mapping experience, the Common Language organizes 35 distinct Use Categories into four familiar Sectors to help planners, managers and stakeholders map and understand the drivers, impacts and benefits of ocean uses across multiple scales.

Understanding How Ocean Uses Function
Every human use of the ocean, from swimming, to motorized boating, shipping, fishing and energy production, needs certain conditions to be pursued successfully.  For example, swimmers need clean water and safe conditions; divers seek diverse ecological communities; and energy production needs space for installed infrastructure and reliable access to the extracted resource itself.  Taken together, these ecosystem and space-use requirements define the operational footprint of each ocean use and shape its interactions with other uses and with the surrounding environment.  To enable planners to effectively incorporate this important dimension of ocean planning, the MPA Center is developing detailed profiles of the operational requirements for all 35 Use Categories defined in the Common Language. (early 2014)

Identifying Potential Ocean Use Conflicts and Compatibilities
Although our oceans seem vast, most human uses occur in a narrow band of the coastal zone.  As the number and variety of ocean uses grows, so too have concerns over the potential for conflicts among co-occurring activities competing for the same space or ecosystem services.  To help find solutions to this pressing challenge, the MPA Center is developing innovative tools to visualize and more fully understand exactly how and where co-occurring use may conflict or be compatible.  Based on analyses of the specific operational requirements for each individual use, these analytical tools will allow a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the implications and tradeoffs of different scenarios of future ocean use. (Spring 2014) 

Mapping Patterns of Ocean Use
Documenting where people use the ocean is fundamental to sustainably managing the impacts, benefits and socioeconomic drivers of ocean uses.  Using an innovative participatory mapping approach to document ocean use patterns, the MPA Center and its partners have mapped a wide range of human activities throughout US waters in California, New Hampshire, Southern Maine, Hawai'i, Virginia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  MPA Center staff members are now collaborating with NOAA's Coastal Services Center and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to map ocean use patterns and apply the tools developed above to identify potential conflicts in Oregon, Washington and Hawai'i. 

For Additional Information
Overall Effort:
Dr. Charles M. Wahle
Senior Scientist, National MPA Center
(831) 647-6460

Ocean Use Mapping:
Dr. Mimi D'Iorio
Pacific Regional Ocean Use Atlas Lead
NOAA's Coastal Services Center (on detail from MPA Center)
(831) 647-6462