Editor’s note: The following perspective piece, authored by David Stein, addresses a challenge often encountered by MPA managers: inexact or inconsistent boundary information. Stein, a geographer for the US-based Technology, Planning and Management Corporation (TPMC), is a contractor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Services Center, site of the Training and Technical Assistance Institute for the National Marine Protected Areas Center.

These tips were drawn from his and others’ work for the NOAA Coastal Services Center, the Training and Technical Assistance Institute, and the (US) Federal Geographic Data Committee’s Marine Boundary Working Group. The NOAA Coastal Services Center is in the process of developing a publication entitled Marine Boundary Best Practices: A Handbook on Developing Legal Descriptions and Digital Boundaries for Marine Managed Areas.

By David Stein, Technology, Planning and Management Corporation (TPMC)

Depleted marine resources and increased threats by man-made pollutants are forcing many jurisdictions to expand law enforcement and begin comprehensive planning in the offshore environment. As a result, the need for accurate, useable, and accessible digital marine boundaries that define territorial claims and marine protected areas is unprecedented in today’s oceans.

Marine or maritime boundaries share a common element with their land-based counterparts in that, in order to map a boundary, one must adequately interpret the relevant law and its spatial context. However, unlike on land, marine boundaries often have no physical evidence to mark them. As a result, there can be confusion, disagreement, and conflicting versions of marine boundaries. The following tips are designed to assist practitioners in drafting and developing digital marine boundaries for MPAs. Tips 1-3 are general recommendations for those drafting the legal or authoritative descriptions of marine managed areas. Tips 4-7 are more specific recommendations designed to assist those in developing the digital boundaries for MPAs.

  1. The legal or authoritative description of an MPA must be clearly written so that it can be easily and accurately translated into a digital boundary. Ambiguous language like “general contour of the coast,” “slightly off of Resurrection Point,” or “approximate low water” should be avoided; instead, use references that can be mapped. Rationale: Clear, concise boundary descriptions translate into legally defensible and enforceable boundaries, and make it easier for technicians, GIS specialists, and cartographers to map digital marine boundaries. A person must be able to take information contained in a legal document and place the description on the ground or in a map. If a surveyor or technician cannot do this, then the description fails.
  2. When describing or developing a digital marine boundary, it is advisable to reference fixed features that will not move over time. A natural feature such as a rocky headland is a good example. Rationale: Referencing features that are ambulatory or have a tendency to move can result in obsolete boundaries. A sandy point is a good example to avoid, but even a groin, jetty, or other seemingly fixed feature may be moved or demolished.
  3. Prior to publication, have your boundary reviewed by mapping, legal, and enforcement staff. Rationale: If the goal of an MPA is to protect natural resources, key staff members need to know how to map, defend, and enforce the extents of the MPA.
  4. When developing a digital marine boundary, use the official source for boundary information. For example, if a legal description for an MPA boundary indicates the three-mile jurisdictional boundary as the outer limit, make sure you obtain the “official” three-mile jurisdictional boundary for that state. Rationale: Referencing other boundaries of questionable source may render your boundary unenforceable.
  5. When developing a boundary from a hard copy document, use the most detailed chart or map available. This will capture the greatest amount of information and ensure the highest level of accuracy. Rationale: In a geographic information system (GIS), data become scale-less due to the ability to display the data at any scale. Because accuracy is a function of the scale at which a map was created, presumably the more detailed the scale, the more accurate a digital marine boundary. It is important to note that there is a threshold scale at which the boundary’s accuracy will be compromised.
  6. Develop minimum mapping specifications, or a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), for developing boundaries within your organization. Rationale: A SOP is a set of written instructions that document a routine or repetitive activity followed by an organization. The development and use of SOPs are an integral part of a successful quality system, as they provide individuals with the information to perform a job properly and facilitate consistency in the quality and integrity of a product.
  7. Share your marine boundary data through a data clearinghouse or the World Wide Web and notify all appropriate authorities of the existence of new or modified boundaries. Rationale: Data sharing is essential to ensure that marine resource users, managers, and law enforcement staff are all utilizing the most current and accurate boundaries possible.

For more information:
Questions about these tips can be directed to Heidi Recksiek, MPA Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator, 2234 South Hobson Avenue, Charleston, SC 29405-2413, USA. Tel: +1 843 740 1194; E-mail: heidi.recksiek@noaa.gov.