Caring for our ocean and fisheries that sustain us requires an acute understanding of what’s beneath the surface. Having worked with partners on comprehensive maps of Mid-Atlantic marine life and human activities such as fishing, shipping and energy production, The Nature Conservancy is empowering everyone from fishermen to federal agencies to protect our ocean’s bounty.
Charting a New Course
Imagine that you run a shipping fleet, or work for a federal agency with oversight. Until recently, you had scant information to rely on beyond maps with large blue spaces labeled “Atlantic Ocean.” This vacuum has contributed to numerous incidents in which ships struck and killed whales.
When the whale is an endangered species or leaves behind a defenseless calf, the tragedy is compounded. “Everyone involved wants to avoid conflicts like these, and the good news is they are solvable problems,” says Jay Odell, director of our Mid-Atlantic Marine Program. Jay anticipates approval from the National Ocean Council by year’s end for a new regional action plan that will revolutionize how we use our ocean.
Eight years in the making, this effort received a major boost in 2010 when the Obama administration announced the first-ever national ocean policy. Among its reforms was a call for coordinated ocean planning. Lending our scientific expertise to this national initiative, we worked with a variety of stakeholders, including fishermen, to create richly detailed maps of habitat and human uses.
The resulting Mid-Atlantic Ocean Data Portal is an online interactive tool serving as the hub of information about our seascape from Virginia to New York. An approved action plan will trigger agreed-upon commitments and empower federal and state agencies, tribal authorities, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to coordinate. They will use the portal to guide their decisions about the ocean and those who depend on it for recreation and livelihoods.
“The new action plan will bring ocean governance into the 21st century,” Jay says. “It enables us to chart a course for a future where we can use our ocean without using it up.” Jay sees more big wins on the horizon akin to this summer’s decision protecting 20 species of prey fish and last year’s sweeping protections for Mid-Atlantic corals. That historic action covers an area of seafloor the size of Virginia, encompassing dozens of submarine canyons where ancient corals support a remarkable diversity of life.
As a coastal scientist on the Eastern Shore, Alex Wilke enjoys a spectacular work environment: the wild barrier islands of our Virginia Coast Reserve. Alex calls this place “a paradise,” though she means for the birds. So you might say her job boils down to patrolling paradise — and keeping it that way. Working with partners and volunteers, Alex has helped document the global importance of this habitat for birds of special concern, such as American oystercatchers, Wilson’s and piping plovers, and red knots.
Recent surveys suggest, for example, that nearly a third of one entire subspecies of red knot, recently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, depends on the barrier islands to rest and refuel while migrating. What makes the reserve such ideal habitat for coastal birds? In short, the absence of human disturbance. “They need large, dynamic coastal habitats that are free to function as nature designed,” says Alex.