The portal is the plan: governing US oceans in regional assemblages


We apply theories of environmental governance, assemblage, and geo-epistemology to critically reflect on ocean planning in federal waters of the USA. US ocean planning was initiated in July 2010 when President Obama issued Executive Order 13547; this set in motion what was then called coastal and marine spatial planning, but without a congressional legislative mandate or budgetary appropriation. There are many reasons we might expect ocean planning to be centered in the US federal government, but ocean planning is transpiring in a neoliberal era in which there is little enthusiasm for “big government” and its projects. Thus, the project has been one of governance, with federal and state agencies participating along with non-government actors. What does a public planning process of this scope and geographic extent look like as a project of environmental governance? We focus on governance actors and the scale at which they operate, as well as the data infrastructure to support ocean planning, to analyze how US ocean planning is both illustrative of and contributes to our understanding of contemporary environmental governance. We have argued elsewhere that ocean planning in the USA has the potential to deliver outcomes alternative to marginalization of communities and enclosure of environments for capital accumulation, but this potential is fragile. In an era of unstable government when executive orders can be issued and revoked at the whim of the White House, questions about who/how ocean planning is carried in real space/time become even more important.

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  1. 1.

    In prior publications, we have used the term marine spatial planning (MSP) to be consistent with the broader literature. In this paper, where we emphasize the shifting, emergent nature of a governance assemblage, we use the term that has emerged within this assemblage: ocean planning.

  2. 2.

    Although our formal (and funded) research on US ocean planning is complete, we continue to monitor events via government documents and initiatives, media reports, list-serves, etc.

  3. 3.

    We most often use the term “government” in place of the term “state,” to distinguish the generic “state” from any of the 50 US states. When we do invoke the generic “state,” we use the term “nation state.”

  4. 4.

    The USA has been producing nautical charts and coastal surveys for much longer, mainly to aid navigation. Historic charts are archived at

  5. 5.

    Alaska/Arctic, Pacific Islands, West Coast, Gulf of Mexico, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Caribbean, and Great Lakes

  6. 6.

    Figures are calculated using federal funding announcements archived at

  7. 7.

    Sea Grant (est. 1966) is a partnership between the US federal government via NOAA and 33 universities throughout the USA.

  8. 8.

    These figures were presented during an NROC Meeting on November 5, 2015, at the NH Department of Environmental Services in Portsmouth, NH. The presentation was entitled “The NROC Story,” and given to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of NROC.

  9. 9.

    Project funding is listed on the GBMF website (

    We searched for all grants relevant to ocean planning in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It is possible we missed some, in which case these figures are the minimum. Additional funds were provided to other partners, e.g., The Nature Conservancy, to support their MSP work. Because these grants were difficult to tie exclusively to ocean planning in our study regions, we did not include them in our calculations.


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We thank the numerous individuals we interviewed and interacted with for their time and thought. This article benefited from constructive feedback from two anonymous reviewers. This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation (Award Nos. 1155484, 1359943 and 1359805).

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Correspondence to Lisa M. Campbell.

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Campbell, L.M., St. Martin, K., Fairbanks, L. et al. The portal is the plan: governing US oceans in regional assemblages. Maritime Studies 19, 285–297 (2020).

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  • Marine spatial planning
  • Ocean planning
  • Assemblage
  • Governance
  • Mapping
  • Data infrastructure