50 Years of Ocean & Coastal Conservation: Coastal Zone Management Act

Photo credit: Christina Ford

In 1972, the United States enacted a wave of landmark legislation to protect and sustain the ocean, coasts, and Great Lakes, including the amendments to the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act. These Acts fundamentally changed how the United States managed marine, Great Lakes, and coastal environments. Join us at Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2022 to learn more about the impact and legacy of each of these Acts and celebrate 50 years of ocean and coastal conservation!

Proximity to the water has sparked population growth and economic development and drawn people to the shore since the dawn of civilization. Almost 40% of the United States population lives in coastal areas, meaning that issues that affect our coast have a direct impact on people. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the total length of the United States shoreline is 95,471 miles long. The coastal zone along this shoreline includes a variety of habitats such as beaches, wetlands, and salt marshes. These areas are essential for the well-being of our coastlines and communities for ecological, cultural, recreational, industrial, and aesthetic purposes, today and in the future.

Communities depend on coastlines for a variety of uses. In addition to enjoying the scenic views, people love to enjoy the outdoors by hiking the shoreline, kayaking, fishing, swimming, and other forms of outdoor recreation. Indigenous communities, who have been stewards of our ocean and coasts since time immemorial, have deep cultural ties to coastal areas that connect them to their heritage. Fisheries and aquaculture that support local economies and provide sustainable seafood rely on access to the coast for harvesting of fish, shellfish, and other living marine resources. The coastal zone also plays an important role in commerce, transportation and navigation, residential development, extraction of mineral resources and fossil fuels, and waste disposal.

Without proper management, these coastal areas are vulnerable to negative impacts from some of these human activities. In addition, changing ocean conditions like climate change, ocean acidification, and sea level rise all can have serious adverse impacts on these important coastal ecosystems, resulting in the loss of marine life and spaces for public use and shoreline erosion.

Congress enacted the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) in 1972 to recognize the importance of meeting the challenge of competing uses and continued growth in the coastal zone. The CZMA aims to “preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance the resources of the nation’s coastal zone.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is responsible for administration of the Act to protect, restore, and responsibly develop coastal communities and resources. Three national programs fall under the CZMA – the National Coastal Zone Management Program which is a voluntary partnership between the federal government and 34 coastal and Great Lakes states and territories, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System that serves as field laboratories to study estuaries and human impacts, and the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program that provides state and local government funding to purchase threatened coastal and estuarine lands or obtain conservation easements.

These programs encourage states and relevant authorities to develop and implement management programs to achieve wise use of coastal resources while balancing differing uses. The overarching goal of these management plans under the CZMA is to protect significant natural resources, reasonable coastal-dependent economic growth, and protection of life and property. Comprehensive planning and management are needed to properly site facilities related to national defense, energy, fisheries development, recreation, transportation, and other coastal-dependent activities, and plan for areas likely to be adversely affected by sea level rise, land subsidence, and other coastal hazards. They also assist with redevelopment of deteriorating urban waterfronts and ports, and preserve historic, cultural, and aesthetic coastal features. Both threats facing our coastlines and proposed uses of the coastal zone may change in coming years, but the Coastal Zone Management Act will continue to provide a framework to guide these decision-making processes.