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Protecting our coastal waters

THE ENERGY BILL that was just signed by the president includes a provision that would open all of the waters of the United States Continental Shelf to oil and gas exploration. This means there could be oil and gas drilling on Georges Bank, vital fishing ground off the coast of Nantucket.

The threat of oil and gas drilling in Georges Bank is not new; we faced the same threat in the early 1970s, and as a result the Massachusetts Ocean Sanctuaries Act was passed. However, it has been 35 years since the state's management of the ocean has been comprehensively reviewed.

Along with oil and gas drilling, oceans today are increasingly being viewed as potential industrial zones that can serve as offshore locations for everything from wind energy facilities to liquefied natural gas facilities to floating casinos. This ''first-come, first serve" gold rush has caught coastal communities off guard as they try to protect their way of life and their local economies.

Establishing resource protection and management for not only Massachusetts coastal waters, but for coastal waters across the nation has become an increasingly contentious and vital policy issue. It is a policy issue that must be a priority both nationally and locally.

In a state where high tech and biotech are often viewed as the major economic drivers, it is easy to overlook what has historically been an important factor in our economy: the ocean. Our oceans are a significant economic force in the Commonwealth, generating approximately $14.3 billion in trades, services and products.

Gloucester and New Bedford have two of the largest fishing industries in the country, and Cape Cod and the Islands are international tourism destinations and a critically important part of our commercial and recreational fisheries. Boating, coastal real estate values, and vacation destinations along our 1,500 miles of coastline sustain our economy well beyond what most people imagine.

While few can argue that we don't need gas, oil, LNG, or renewable energy, the question that now confronts us is whether these facilities are compatible with our coastal way of life. Can our ocean-based economies flourish as they have throughout our history if we open up the floodgates to projects that have a decidedly more industrial base than do fishing, aquaculture and boating? Are our interests really being protected when developers choose the locations?

I have filed Ocean Management legislation to jumpstart the process of getting control over our state coastal waters before we are overrun by these projects. The legislation grew out of the Massachusetts Ocean Management Task Force which last year brought together fishermen, boaters, state and municipal officials, conservationists and developers to assess the 'state of our oceans' and determine steps we need to take to protect this critical resource.

The legislation would address current planning and regulatory gaps at the state level by creating a comprehensive planning process, which combines input from stakeholders and experts to establish sound ocean policy for our coastal waters. It is the important first piece in the Commonwealth's effort to plan for the competing uses of our ocean resources. Any legislative effort must ensure a federal-state partnership to manage our ocean resources with a regional, eco-system based approach. Territorial boundaries are arbitrary and meaningless to the fish and wildlife that are threatened by the increased pressures on our ocean. That is why we need to establish a clear state-federal process that will help individual coastal states determine where projects ought to be sited, even beyond their legal jurisdiction.

Without clear rules, we are doomed to watch, over and over, as these acrimonious debates split communities, environmentalists and other natural constituencies that have historically worked together toward common goals. For those who seriously advocate the expansion of renewable energy, the real threat is that while we fight these individual skirmishes we will lose the real battle, which is how to develop sustainable use of our oceans that serve all of our best interests.

Planning before permitting is essential, and Massachusetts needs to act on this now. The Commonwealth's seashores are world renowned; our coasts and oceans are a staple of our economy. Without protections in place we are jeopardizing our natural resources and blank.

Passage of ocean management legislation is the first step that Massachusetts must make to take a responsible role in protecting our coastal waters for generations to come.

Robert A. O'Leary, D-Barnstable, represents the Cape and Islands in the Massachusetts State Senate and served on the Massachusetts Ocean Management Task Force.

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