[Editor's note: Jennifer McCann is a principal investigator and management team member of Rhode Island's Ocean Special Area Management Plan. She directed a training workshop in May 2011 on marine spatial planning in Rhode Island.]

By Jen McCann, Rhode Island Sea Grant Program and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center

Rhode Island was the first state in the US to develop a spatial plan for its marine waters and, in 2011, was the first to have that plan adopted by the federal government – the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or Ocean SAMP (http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/oceansamp). The planning process provided an opportunity for Rhode Island to be in the driver's seat regarding how our offshore waters are developed and conserved.

When describing marine spatial planning (MSP) to people unfamiliar with it, I say that it is sort of like land use planning. It allows us to better understand a place (the ocean, in our case) so that we can make better decisions for how it is and will be used. In doing so, Rhode Island is able to preserve what is economically, culturally, and environmentally important to us, while directing future development (like offshore renewable energy) to locations with minimal negative impact on our human and natural resources.

The spatial plan also allows Rhode Island and the federal government to provide clearer regulatory responses. If a developer proposes to install wind turbines in the state's new offshore renewable energy zone, for example, the approval process will likely be faster than before because the state has already determined that this is the best area to place turbines.

The Rhode Island Sea Grant Program played a lead role in communicating about the MSP process to the general public and stakeholders. In terms of the challenges involved in this communication, here are some lessons learned from the Rhode Island experience:

  • Misinformation and misunderstandings about the purpose of the planning are always an issue. During planning we were in constant contact with the media, our federal and state representatives, resource users, local decision makers, and other stakeholders to ensure they were aware of the truth. That way they could help us communicate the real goals of the process and the actions we were taking. For MSP processes to be successful, the goals must be clear to stakeholders and supported by them.
  • Make sure that all participants and stakeholders feel they have an equal seat at the table and that this is a fair and transparent process. This includes ensuring that no one gets information sooner than anyone else. It also involves making sure your entire team is communicating the same message to the public. Demonstrate through your process that you have heard stakeholders' issues and are responding to their concerns.
  • Take care of your team. MSP can be a tough and emotional process. Make sure no one is working alone and there is always an opportunity for team members to share what they are learning.

For more information:

Jennifer McCann, Rhode Island Sea Grant Program and URI Coastal Resources Center, Narragansett, Rhode Island, US. E-mail: mccann@gso.uri.edu