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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand in California.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block in Washington.

The oceans may seem endless, but in fact, we're starting to run out of room. That's especially true in coastal waters. Conflicts arise between the needs of wind energy, aqua culture, shipping, wildlife and of course, fishing. Before those conflicts get out of hand, the Obama administration is hoping to create a master plan for managing territorial waters.

Today we begin a three-part series Oceans at Risk. And NPR's Richard Harris travels to one potential flashpoint for conflict: Massachusetts Bay.

RICHARD HARRIS: Anybody who has tried to dodge around Boston's notorious streets can tell you that the city is one bustling place. But it might come as a surprise that the same can be said for the waters that extend off of Boston shore out into Massachusetts Bay. And there's no better way to make that point than to head out to sea.

Ms. SALLY YOZELL (Nature Conservancy): Oh, we could not have picked a better day.

HARRIS: Sally Yozell of the Nature Conservancy has offered to take us out with a friend of hers, Captain John Williamson. The sun is shining and there's a cooling breeze.

Ms. YOZELL: Here he is.

HARRIS: The fisherman turned conservationist pulls his gleaming, white boat up to a dock behind Boston's aquarium.

Captain JOHN WILLIAMSON (Conservationist): Good morning.

HARRIS: Nice to meet you.

Capt. WILLIAMSON: Nice to meet you.

HARRIS: We breathe deep the tangy salt air tinged with a hint of diesel.

(Soundbite of boat)

Capt. WILLIAMSON: We are steaming out of Boston Harbor on the Sea Keeper, which is a modified lobster boat. It was obvious, as we were passing the Boston waterfront, that people have planned and thought very carefully about what would be built out there. What Boston has done to its waterfront, Massachusetts is now planning to do to the waters out here.

(Soundbite of boat)

HARRIS: Zoning is coming soon to the ocean to help sort out the many conflicting uses. We pass freighters as the city skyline starts to recede, and we see fishing trawlers docked along the shore, unloading their catches. A lone windmill stands in the distance, a harbinger of some big plans for offshore wind in the area. And from the helm, Williamson says, don't forget about the rich and abundant wildlife here, above and below the waves.

Capt. WILLIAMSON: We're now about to go into Mass Bay. And Mass Bay is one of the most diverse ecological areas in the eastern seaboard, okay? And it also happens to be juxtaposed with a six million urban population in Boston.

HARRIS: Bostonians need, among other things, fuel to heat their homes. And some of that is shipped from overseas to a point about three miles offshore.

Ms. YOZELL: So we're coming up on the liquefied natural gas terminal. And you can see off to our side that there is a - what looks like a service vessel that is probably finishing off some of the construction. It looks pretty benign from the surface, don't you think?

HARRIS: Yeah, I don't see anything at all.

Ms. YOZELL: Nope. Not much to see on the surface from here, although there's probably a small buoy and dock on the other side of that ship.

HARRIS: Yozell says from this point, a flexible pipe runs down 250 feet to the ocean bottom and into a buried pipeline, which carries the gas ashore. There's a second terminal nearby, so two gas tankers can unload at the same time.

Capt. WILLIAMSON: There's a quarter-mile restricted zone radius around each one, and they're about a quarter mile apart.

HARRIS: It's one of the rare instances where the sea is already zoned. In this case, an area reserved exclusively for gargantuan, liquefied natural gas tankers.

(Soundbite of boat)

HARRIS: A whale-watching vessel steams across our bow. Williamson throttles up and follows it toward the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. From the surface, the sanctuary is indistinguishable from the sea around it. But Williamson says don't be fooled.

Capt. WILLIAMSON: It's very easy standing on the beach and you look out at the expanse of blue water and you think that it's all the same. But not every square inch of the ocean is the same. And some areas are very much more important than others.

HARRIS: Stellwagen is a case in point. Here, the water suddenly becomes shallower. That, in turn, lifts the nutrient-rich Labrador Current up from the depths and feeds a thriving ecosystem. Small fish called sand lances are abundant and those in turn attract larger fish and in turn a phalanx of fishing vessels.

Capt. WILLIAMSON: These are all boats out here that are fishing for bluefin tuna.

HARRIS: Seagulls and storm-petrels reel in the dazzling blue sky and dip down to join the feast. The whale-watching boat is here because the fish also attract humpback whales.

Capt. WILLIAMSON: The sand lance is like a pad of butter for the humpback whale. They're just a very fatty fish. And then, so these whales are spending the summer here fattening up for a long, lean winter.

HARRIS: So whales and fishing boats share the marine sanctuary. Sally Yozell says that's a compromise. It might work out, but nobody can say for sure because nobody is really looking at the big picture out here.

Ms. YOZELL: The federal government manages for each individual sector. So you have the fisheries service managing on fisheries. You have the minerals management service on energy. You have the Fish and Wildlife Service on birds and, you know, Army Corps on dredging. And they all do it individually.

HARRIS: The Obama administration is now in the midst of developing a comprehensive management plan for U.S. waters for the first time ever. Some states, such as Massachusetts, are already leading the way. States control the first three miles of coastal waters. The federal government controls everything beyond that, out to 200 miles.

This summer, Ian Bowles unveiled Massachusetts' draft plan for managing its waters. He's secretary for Energy and Environmental Affairs. And he says what really pushed the state legislature to act was the prospect of some large offshore wind farms, including a controversial one off of Cape Cod.

Secretary IAN BOWLES (Energy and Environmental Affairs): It's actually in federal waters and not covered by this plan and so far along in the permitting process that it was exempted by the legislature. But I think the idea that there were going to be several other proposals for our state waters for commercial wind development. But, really, a sense that we needed to figure out where do want this to happen and where do we need to - where are the areas that it should avoid?

HARRIS: During the process, the state has tentatively selected two sites for offshore wind and rejected a third as too environmentally sensitive. With this plan, clean offshore wind will meet only just a tiny fraction of the demand for power in Massachusetts. Another sore point: Bowles acknowledges that the plan does not designate any new area as truly protected marine preserves.

Sec. BOWLES: We'll end up, of course, with criticism from the conservation community and the renewable energy industry. And we think we've done a good job of balancing all those different factors.

Ms. YOZELL: It's a brilliant framework. They've really laid out an excellent framework.

HARRIS: Sally Yozell from the Nature Conservancy says, even so, there's room from improvement.

Ms. YOZELL: We would like to see them go a little further on the cumulative impacts: what happens over years and what happens when you layer different human uses on the environment for areas that certainly need to be set off for certain protections.

(Soundbite of boat)

HARRIS: Back on the boat, our persistence on the Stellwagen Bank has paid off. Sally Yozell spies a humpback whale's fin slicing through the waves.

Ms. YOZELL: That's a pretty good sized one. There goes the flute. Cool.

HARRIS: Captain John Williamson chases behind at a respectable distance so we can get a closer look.

Ms. YOZELL: Oh, there goes the spout. Oh, it's cruising. That's beautiful.

HARRIS: The graceful and vulnerable animal is a living reminder of what's at stake out here in the bustling waters off the coast.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

BLOCK: And at our new redesigned Web site, npr.org, you can find the Massachusetts draft plan for ocean management.

BRAND: And tomorrow we continue our series Oceans at Risk with a trip to the Caribbean island of Bonaire. In 1998, a massive warming episode in the oceans killed off nearly a fifth of the world's coral. On Bonaire, all that remained was a vast expanse of bleached out, lifeless reefs.

Unidentified Man: The reef slope actually looked like a mountain slope full of snow. People here were taking their skis out and took pictures for home, like they were skiing the coral reefs.

BRAND: The reef recovered and now scientists are studying it to find out what will make coral reefs resilient as global warming heats up the oceans. We'll have that story for you tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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