State's ocean waters due for regs
Potential impacts from a sweeping new state law that will regulate the use of Massachusetts ocean waters is expected to dominate discussion at a public "listening meeting " Tuesday evening at the Martha's Vineyard Commission.
State agencies are required to present for state approval an implementation plan for the 2008 Oceans Act by year end 2009 and have begun the process by seeking opinion from residents of Massachusetts coastal communities.
The Oceans Act passed the legislature in May 2008.
The meeting, one of 18 planned by the state, will be held October 14 at 7 pm at the Martha's Vineyard Commission office at 33 New York Ave. in Oak Bluffs. Deerin Babb-Brott, state assistant secretary for ocean and coastal zone management for the executive office of energy and environmental affairs (EOEEA), as well as members of a new Massachusetts Ocean Advisory Commission (OAC) will attend the public forum. Mr. Babb-Brott is charged with developing the implementation plan.
The effect on ocean habitat, aesthetics, and ecology from private wind energy and other ocean-based private energy developments in Vineyard and Nantucket sounds, as well as in Buzzards Bay, are key state concerns related to implementing the Oceans Act, according to language in the law.
The legislation also clearly states that regulation of fishing will remain unchanged. Under the act, the division of marine fisheries will continue to regulate commercial and recreational fishing as it does now. The act directs that "the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) shall have sole responsibility for developing and implementing any fisheries management plans or fisheries regulations" and further directs that "commercial and recreational fishing shall be allowable use, subject to the exclusive jurisdiction" of the DMF.
Cape and Island state Senator Rob O'Leary (D), an OAC member, said on Tuesday that the law has critical implications for Islanders. "Essentially, it's a first step in 'zoning' the ocean," he said. "There is no comprehensive federal plan. We would be the first state to adopt a broad-based ocean use plan."
"The ocean is a public resource and resident opinions need to be heard, particularly on the Vineyard," Mr. O'Leary said. "The final plan will affect everyone, including fishermen, businesses and homeowners. Just consider the aesthetics alone and the dedication to conservation that makes the Vineyard such a green energy zone," he added.
Massachusetts is quick-stepping its plan to "balance natural resource preservation with traditional and new uses, including renewable energy protection of marine resources with uses such as renewable energy development" by December 31, 2009.
The effort is designed to provide governance of large-scale energy projects, such as plans for large liquid natural gas projects, and recently, a plan by private developer Jay Cashman to build as many as 120 wind turbines up to 450 feet in height in busy state waters in Buzzard's Bay within three miles off Fairhaven and Dartmouth and the northern side of Gosnold, or the Elizabeth Islands, one of the seven Dukes County towns.
"There is a great deal of competing pressure out there to use public space in the ocean. This legislation is moving us in the direction of zoning, if you will, but it's a beginning plan. It will be a work in progress over time," Senator O'Leary said, noting that the demand to build private projects on public water has been intense "and there will be more," he predicted.
"I was elected in 2000," Mr. O'Leary said. "The rapid emergence of large energy projects even then led me to file for oversight legislation. There is no governance on the federal level. We can't criticize federal officials unless we are doing something."
Mr. Babb-Brott endorsed the work in progress theme this week and pledged a slow, cautious approach to the first-in-the-country attempt to regulate use of the ocean, but he believes the fledgling effort can have an effect on future federal regulations. "We are hoping to influence the development of federal ocean use standards and we will be working with a number of federal agencies as we develop the implementation plan," he said.
The strenuously debated Cape Wind energy project is beyond the purview of the Oceans Act because it is designed to be located in federal waters and would be grandfathered under the new state law in any event, Mr. Babb-Brott said this week
The scope of Oceans Act work involves literally measuring the ocean in state waters from the bottom up, and sub-groups will analyze habitat, commercial and recreational fishing, renewable energy, navigation and infrastructure, sediment management and social, cultural and historic impact.
Next week's meeting is the tenth in the series. The focus of public comment at meetings to date has depended on where the meetings were held, according to Mr. Babb-Brott. "On the North Shore, beach erosion is a concern," he said. "In New Bedford, fishing was an early question." Both Senator O'Leary and Mr. Babb-Brott emphasized that regulating fishing is not part of the Oceans Act and both noted that clear language on fishing was included to avoid clouding the discussion of ocean use.
The new ocean management plan will be developed by the EOEEA in consultation with the 17-member ocean advisory commission, staffed by legislators, such as Mr. O'Leary, state regulators, including DMF director Paul Diodati, and local coastal planning representatives, including Jo-Ann Taylor of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, with advice from an ocean science advisory council.
Ms. Taylor is concerned about data gathering given the short implementation timeline. "I'm concerned about that. How do you make decisions without several years of data and observation. I attended the New Bedford meeting and heard concerns about roseate terns and the potential tidal change impact on whale habitat.
"I know the Vineyard style is to attend and have our say, but just listening is also very important. I don't want people to see a final plan and wonder how it all happened. Private interests are well prepared for the meetings," she said.
The final ocean plan will be incorporated into the existing regional coastal planning agencies guidelines and enforced through the state's regulatory and permitting processes, including the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) and Chapter 91, the state's waterways law.