How Marine Spatial Planning Calms Choppy Waters

Getting everyone with a vested interest onboard early, rather than making others adjust to a new obstacle at sea, provides benefits for all involved.
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Getting everyone with a vested interest onboard early, rather than making others adjust to a new obstacle at sea, provides benefits for all involved.

Imagine starting to build a house by first deciding where to put the kitchen sink, suggests scientist Benjamin Halpern. The placement is first class — for a sink — and helps the next project on your list, determining a good place for the downstairs bathroom. Over time, each addition of a room or a feature slowly completes the structure. In the end, this sink-centric home might turn out to be a perfect house, but that seems a stretch and, as Halpern insists, no one would approach the project that way.

Instead of a house, let’s say you wanted to place some windmills offshore to generate green electricity, but without ruining too many people’s whale-watching or too badly harming the local fishing industry. Oddly enough, in this instance, that idea of starting with one feature, the windmills, and letting everything else build around it not only doesn’t sound bizarre, it’s commonplace. That’s even odder given that humans, unlike ill-placed commodes, are likely to hire lawyers when the decisions mount against them.

In the windmill example, explains Halpern, director of the Center for Marine Assessment and Planning at the University of California, Santa Barbara, you are “minimizing the impact on those other stakeholders [the tourists and the anglers] but you’re not maximizing their benefits.” If you accounted for these other users at the front end — as a traditional-minded architect would in designing a dream home — it seems likely you’d get a much better outcome.

Maybe no one walks away totally stoked, he says, “but you’re finding the sweet spot where you make as many people as possible happy.”

The way Halpern suggests finding that sweet spot is through “marine spatial planning,” the legal and academic term for trying to maximize benefits for everyone instead of placing the kitchen sink by fiat and asking everyone else to try and find satisfaction around that. Halpern is co-author of a paper appearing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measured the value of marine spatial planning in proposing new wind farm sites off Massachusetts Bay. (The existing Cape Wind project, also off the Massachusetts coast, demonstrates the difficulties of satisfying all parties in these efforts.)

The paper is the first to conclusively show, in dollars and cents, the value brought by marine spatial planning.

Halpern, along with lead author Crow White of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, and Carrie V. Kappel of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, compared wind farm designs using marine spatial planning with designs using “business as usual” methods and came to the eye-popping conclusion that spatial planning on where to place the turbines not only could save $1 million in losses to lobster and flounder fisheries, but it could generate $10 billion — with a “B” — in value for the wind farmers. Plus, conflicts between the parties could be reduced if they would engage in the process.

As the authors wrote of business as usual, “Trade-offs are rarely addressed explicitly or transparently, so they go unrealized or are poorly evaluated.”

By its nature, spatial planning makes trade-offs specific and measurable, while the science of assessing trade-offs (such as through the Ocean Health Index) has become sophisticated enough to generate useful numbers. But it’s not a slam-dunk process, in large part because while lots of values can be identified, running all the permutations turns into a mathematical monster when more than four or so variables are included in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of calculations required (although the authors agree that the more uses that can be included, the richer the analysis will be).

The end result, plotted mathematically, creates an “efficiency frontier” — not a single all-mighty number but a basket of good compromises from which human beings can then craft policy or place windmills.

Economists may wonder what’s new about marine spatial planning, since for decades they’ve been using similar methods, both in exact financial matters and the fuzzier “utility functions” for non-dollar-denominated values like, say, ocean views. Timber harvesting in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, has been examined with the same toolkit. But only in the last few years have their techniques been adapted for managing natural resources at sea. In 2007, the state of Massachusetts mandated marine spatial planning for all projects 300 meters or more offshore, whether windmills, fish farms, or LNG terminals.

Against that background, White, Halpern, and Kappel say their research shows that it makes eminent economic sense to do it in a marine environment, something that hadn’t been done before. Last year, for example, Halpern was running a workshop on marine spatial planning to a group of managers, “and their No. 1 request was to make the business case for it,” he recalls.

A policy window opened in 2010 when the Obama administration orderednine regional planning bodies to oversee the U.S. coastlines, and specifically ordered they include spatial planning. That National Ocean Policy has been met with some skepticism by those who fear its touted transparency will mask takeaways.

But Halpern sees spatial planning, divorced from politics, as a positive for making the best case for any interest — business, ecological, recreational. “It may take extra effort to coordinate all the interests, but in the end you get so much more value out of the ocean.”

Marine biologist Les Kaufman, weighing in on the paper in a release from UCSB, says, “Strangers to marine spatial planning may worry that it means getting less from the ocean tomorrow. This study shows how smarts and science can help us all wind up with a little more … forever.”

“It’s a planning tool, not a prescription,” says Halpern. “All the outcomes are optimally good [in the efficiency frontier], but different. Science doesn’t tell you which one to take — that’s a personal decision, a political decision.”

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