FRIENDSHIP — As I gear up to head back out onto the ocean, hoping for another strong lobster season, I’m reminded just how much these waters have changed.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the impacts changes in our climate have brought to our fisheries – differing molt cycles, lobster migration into deeper, cooler waters and the effects that warming waters have had on shrimp and other species. We’ve all experienced the increased severity of weather events and heard the warnings about an increasingly acidic ocean.

Now we’re also hearing the clamor of those who seek to use ocean space for their industries, including renewable energy production, offshore aquaculture and others. Many of these new users require leases that restrict access for traditional ocean users.

With all of this happening simultaneously, it’s become more important than ever to find a balance between existing and new uses while also protecting everything that our ocean has to offer for future generations.

As more and more people – from recreational fishermen to major businesses – put demands on our ocean and coastal areas, it’s clear that it will require us to make many tough decisions. That’s why I’ve supported the regional ocean planning process as prescribed by the National Ocean Policy.

The process brought together representatives from across six New England states, six federally recognized tribes, nine federal agencies and the New England Fishery Management Council to produce a plan that provides a data portal of information about the region’s ocean and better coordinates and improves ocean management at all levels of government. Last month, this group – the Northeast Regional Planning Body – became the first in the nation to release a draft of its regional ocean plan (neoceanplanning.org/plan/).

I think back to when I served on the Maine Ocean Acidification Commission. At that time, it became clear to me just how much information is still needed to answer all the questions that come with complex ocean issues.

By gathering that needed information and data, we will be able to chart a course to help our coastal communities decide whether to gear up for the economic growth of new ocean uses such as renewable energy or aquaculture, expand efforts toward climate mitigation and remediation or try to retain the qualities and spatial freedom of our wild-caught fisheries. Now, through this plan, we have so much more of that information all in one place.

By using the plan’s data portal, we can view much of the same information that our federal agencies are using to make decisions. But we are also able to make sure that what they are looking at is updated and accurate, and flag for them if it is not.

This draft plan offers a unique opportunity for those of us looking to be involved in the process or at least having some voice in the discussion.

I’ve been able to join the other two public comment meetings that have been held in Maine – one in Rockland and the other in Ellsworth. (The third, and final, meeting is taking place Thursday in Portland.) By attending those meetings, I was able to not only hear firsthand what’s in the plan, but also spot places where I’d recommend changes before the plan becomes final.

As I reviewed it, I realized that the Northeast Regional Planning Body still needs to develop more specific mechanisms and timelines to ensure that all of us who rely on the ocean can maintain a meaningful seat at the table once the plan is implemented. That can be through advisory boards, regularly scheduled meetings around the region or online commenting. But no matter what the mechanism, those of us who derive our livelihood from the ocean want to know how we can stay involved even after the plan is final.

I encourage everyone – from my fellow lobster fishermen to those working for Portland’s maritime industries – to take some time to review the plan and provide input so that it reflects what Maine wants and needs. Over the next month, you can share your thoughts and recommendations using the online comment form at neoceanplanning.org/plan, or by sending an email to [email protected]

Or you can join me in attending the Portland public comment meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the University of Southern Maine Glickman Library, 314 Forest Ave.

The ocean is our workplace and our cultural heritage. It economically sustains us and our extended communities now as it has for centuries, and now is the time to use our voices to shape a plan that works for future generations.