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Marine Policy Center

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Management areas under the Massachussetts Oceans Act

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Management areas under the Massachussetts Oceans Act.

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As the uses of the coastal ocean in the US multiply and intensify, both users and managers are calling for what amount to zoning rules to allocate different areas among competing uses. As on land, ocean zoning entails setting down rules that govern the permissible use of different parts of the ocean. Although the idea of ocean zoning is gaining traction, many questions remain about how to design, implement, and manage a zoned ocean. With support from Woods Hole Sea Grant, researchers at the Marine Policy Center (MPC) are studying alternative approaches to ocean zoning in an effort to understand the overall economic benefits that each would provide to society.

Broadly speaking, there are three main approaches to ocean zoning: government or centralized zoning, community zoning, and decentralized zoning based on property rights. Centralized zoning is a top-down process of government rule-setting for the permissible uses of different parts of the ocean. Community zoning allows communities to decide on their own rules for allocating ocean space. Decentralized zoning involves the establishment of transferable property rights, leading to the emergence of what is essentially a market for ocean space. Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive and various hybrids are possible. For example, a centralized approach may be used to identify areas for fishing and a decentralized approach – such as individual tradeable quotas or ITQs – may be used to allocate fishing rights within this area among fishermen. 

In 2008, Massachusetts became one of the first states to enact into law the equivalent of a centralized zoning plan for state waters. A key part of the Massachusetts Oceans Act relates to so-called siting decisions that determine what parts of the ocean are open to specific activities. Specifically, in opening part of the ocean to a particular activity, the Act calls for a “demonstration that public benefits clearly outweigh the public detriments.” As part of the Center’s effort in this area, Senior Research Specialist Porter Hoagland worked with Summer Student Fellow Lily Steponaitis from the University of North Carolina to assess the extent to which the process by which siting decisions will be made is based on a consideration of public benefits and costs. They found that this process does not, in fact, ensure such a consideration and instead is subjective, arbitrary, and at least partly reflective of political pressures. In particular, this process reflects a continuing preference for traditional uses like fishing—which is essentially exempt from zoning rules—and navigation over innovative uses like ocean energy and aquaculture, irrespective of the costs and benefits to the public.  

The Massachusetts experience underscores a major challenge to centralized ocean zoning. Historically, the management of ocean space has been based on tradition rather than on a true consideration of the benefits to society. Efforts to reverse this will come up against entrenched interests. These interests are well within their rights to use the political process to maintain the status quo. Although there will continue to be progress in this area, we should expect it to be slow.

Andy Solow, Center Director

Last updated: July 27, 2012

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