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Monday, February 18 , 2019, 5:32 am | Fair 43º


MarineMap Draws on New Technology to Create Habitat Zones

Marine Life Protection Act designers are buoyed by an easy, digital solution to a complex balancing act between conservation, commercial and recreation uses.

Click here for a demonstration of MarineMap.
Click here for a demonstration of MarineMap.

If you think land-use planning in our community is tough, try getting millions of Southern Californians to agree which part of state waters to use for what, and which to leave alone.

“It’s very difficult,” said Will McClintock, researcher at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute and geographic information services manager for the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative.

The herculean task of sorting out marine protected areas has been McClintock’s objective, and that of his colleagues with the initiative, for several years. The effort is based on 1999 legislation that requires the protection of certain areas in state waters for the preservation of habitats and species.

Currently the initiative is concentrating on the Southern California Bight, a segment of coastal area and water that stretches from Point Conception to Baja. It’s been called the “big dog” of the Marine Life Protection Act planning areas because of its size and the socioeconomic impact on California’s economy.

But in the ocean, just like on land, the main contention is between those who would conserve the marine habitats and those who need them for their livelihood.

“Determining which habitats are the ‘best’ from a productivity or ecological standpoint is relatively straightforward,” said McClintock. “The challenge is that fishermen and conservationists often have very different ideas about what to do with these areas.”

It’s not just fishing (commercial and recreational), which is a multibillion-dollar industry in Southern California alone. There are other users: recreational divers, surfers, kayakers, charter boats, educators and tours. The list is endless.

Unlike on land, however, it’s not easy to see why certain areas of the ocean are more important to certain goals than others. For years the stakeholders have been discussing, sometimes fighting over who gets to use what spot.

“People get into very, very heated arguments,” McClintock said.

And so that’s where MarineMap comes in. An open-source decision support tool, MarineMap was conceived by a consortium consisting of members from UCSB, The Nature Conservancy and Ecotrust to aid the process of outlining marine protected areas, and more important, coming to compromise between interested parties. With the help of data integration provided by Farallon Geographics, users can assimilate data and collaborate towards a consensus.

Looking like a sleek distant cousin of Google Maps, the application can be just as easy to use, but with the added benefit of having tons of data — from the California Department of Fish & Game, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, various conservancies and universities — to name a few.

“One thing about the stakeholders that go through this project is that they have to deal with a lot of information,” said Chad Burt, who designed the program’s interface. “The goal is to make it as simple as possible so the tool doesn’t get in the way of the decisions.”

A conservationist, for example, may outline an area to protect, but the shape might encroach into a fisherman’s favorite area, or a kayak tour’s best spot. What might have taken weeks to resolve can be turned into days, and with a Twitter-like functionality planned in the near future, maybe even hours.

“It facilitates good dialogue between all representative parties,” said Matt Merrifield, GIS manager from The Nature Conservancy and one of the brains behind the program.

Where stakeholders once had to rely on physical maps and disparate pieces of information, MarineMap puts them into data layers that can be seen, drawn on and commented on by the various stakeholders, who all have varying levels of competency with computers.

Out on the street — or on the water, as it were — the feedback has been good.

“It democratizes the process,” said Greg Helms of the Ocean Conservancy. “I’m just starting to get my teeth into it, but it’s really user-friendly.”

On the other end of the stakeholder spectrum, Mick Kronman agrees.

“It’s one of the most extraordinary software tools I’ve ever used,” said the Santa Barbara city Harbor operations manager. The tool, he said, helps fulfill the scientific and conservation goals of the Marine Life Protection Act while allowing users to forecast what could be unintended consequences of MPA selection on the coastal community.

“We need to establish a balance between the environmental and the social and economic impacts in this community,” he said. Locally, fishing is a $25 million industry.

Only a few months after its rollout and with several additions to its functionality to go, MarineMap is getting attention, and not just from the Southern California community. Groups in the United Kingdom have expressed interest in the program for their own conservation purposes.

“We intentionally developed this tool using open-source software with the intent to potentially have this tool used in other marine (planning) area processes that are happening around the world,” Merrifield said. “If other groups came to us and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to use this,’ we could actually give it to them, they could take it and modify it and make it better.”

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