Planning for the future of our ocean

March 8, 2014

Last Thursday, I attended a Regional Ocean Planning Public Listening Session for a Draft Mid-Atlantic Regional Planning Framework. I would estimate there were 35 to 40 people in the room, which is a pretty good number for most of the public hearings I have attended. Their interests varied from shipping to clean water to I have no idea why they were there.

Sarah Cooksey from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control explained the purpose of the meeting was to solicit comments from the public on how best to plan for current uses of the ocean as well as uses that may come in the future. As an example, if a company wanted to put a wind farm in the ocean, how would that impact current uses, such as fishing and shipping? A plan encompassing all uses would have the information readily available.

It is possible these folks have learned from the mistakes of fishery management, where managing for one species without any consideration how that plan would affect other organisms in the water has not worked out too well. Using a comprehensive management plan including all the information available should keep the cost and time spent on future uses to a minimum.

One of the questions posed was where does the ocean begin? I and others said the ocean begins at the shoreline, not three miles out in federal waters.

The current plan under consideration did not include the bay or estuaries. Once again, there were several comments expressing the idea that the bays and estuaries are connected directly to the ocean and everything that happens in these waterways directly affects what goes on in the ocean.

As an example, one of the future events that is expected to have an impact on the ocean is the widening of the Panama Canal. This will allow more and bigger ships to service East Coast ports, but if the Delaware River channel is not deepened to 45 feet, those ships will not be able to reach ports along the river.

In addition, most of our inshore fish species depend on the bays and estuaries to survive. If this is not taken into consideration, how can we plan for the future?

Quite a few folks spoke of water quality. The proposed chicken processing plant in Millsboro seemed to be the reason for much of this concern. Once again, something that happens in the estuaries will have a direct impact on the ocean.

Tony MacDonald from Monmouth University has been working on a data portal where all the information collected from the numerous user groups would be available. He did not have any input from recreational fishing individuals or groups, but said he was in contact with at least one head boat captain from New Jersey. I offered to put him in contact with folks who could speak for the various factions of the recreational fishing industry in Delaware.

One person spoke to the idea of not developing the ocean at all. As I understood him, he thought the ocean should not be used to support commerce of any kind and should be maintained in a pristine state. He seemed particularly upset about shipping and fishing.

I responded by reminding him that recreational fishermen were the first people to call for conserving the fish and keeping the water clean. We were at the forefront in the effort to save the striped bass and in protecting fish inside the 200-mile limit from over-harvesting by foreign factory ships. The recreational fishing industry continues to lobby for better conservation measures and improved water quality.

A gentleman from the Pilots Association for the Bay and River Delaware made the excellent point that nothing in the room and very little if anything in our daily lives did not arrive via ship. Without the shipping industry, life as we know it would be much different and considerably more expensive.

While it was never mentioned, I know there are several groups that want to lock up as much of the ocean as possible. I have been on federal advisory boards where these people made their case for Marine Protected Areas as the cure-all for everything that’s wrong in the ocean. They are dead wrong. MPAs do nothing for the overall health of fish or shellfish. They only prevent the public from accessing public water.

I do agree there may be a few delicate live-growth bottom areas that should be protected from practices that would damage or destroy them, but to prevent someone from fishing or operating a boat above this bottom is just plain wrong.

This process is ongoing, and even when it is complete there will be constant updating to keep the information current. To find out more about this subject go to or email

  • Eric Burnley is a Delaware native who has fished and hunted the state from an early age.  Since 1978 he has written countless articles about hunting and fishing in Delaware and elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.  He has been the regional editor for Salt Water Sportsman, Field and Stream, Outdoor Life and the Fisherman Magazine.  He was the founding editor of the Mid-Atlantic Fisherman magazine.  Eric is the author of three books; Surf Fishing the Atlantic Coast, The Ultimate Guide to Striped Bass Fishing and Fishing Saltwater Baits.  He and his wife Barbara live near Milton, Delaware. Eric can be reached at