07/18/2011 04:56 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

A Blueprint for Our Blue Home

What happens when you try to build a house without a blueprint? The walls might go up in the wrong locations, or turn out too thin to support a second story. The electrician might arrive before the carpenter is ready, and then he might be unsure of where to place the light fixtures and outlets. Odds are that before long the structure will prove a jumble unsafe not only for its inhabitants, but also those nearby. Blueprints are essential to our homes and daily lives, just as, on a larger scale, urban planning is crucial to our cities.

Our oceans cover two-thirds of what my grandfather called our water planet, and the part of the ocean that falls under the jurisdiction of the United States covers an area larger than the country itself. Our oceans are facing innumerable threats -- from overfishing and pollution to ocean acidification and invasive species -- yet we haven't had a blueprint for its use and development, incredible as that seems. We've built, drilled, and shipped indiscriminately across our oceans, with little consideration for the natural environment that is critical to the health of many of our other ocean uses, like food and recreation. We haven't given much thought to the fact that some activities don't mix or the collective impact of these actions all taking place simultaneously. Finally there is a serious effort to stop the insanity as we explore in this new short NRDC film, "Ocean Blueprint: Planning for Our Marine Environment."

When President Obama established the landmark National Ocean Policy last year, he also created a framework for coastal and marine spatial planning. I know it sounds wonkish, but as one expert in "Ocean Blueprint" notes, it's essentially "urban planning applied to the water column." We urgently need this initiative, as we use our oceans heavily: Cargo ships crisscross the sea, carrying goods between continents. Commercial and recreational fishing boats chase fish just offshore. Cruise ships cruise. Oil and gas drilling continues, but hopefully we will add renewable energy projects as well.

Without planning, however, these various industrial activities amount to what we call "ocean sprawl," steamrolling the resources we rely upon for our livelihoods, food, fun, and even the air we breathe. While humankind relies on many of these industries, we also need to keep the natural riches that support them healthy and thriving. As an explorer, I know firsthand there are many places in the ocean so full of life that they should be protected. Coral reefs and mangrove coastlines are stressed already by climate change and ocean acidification, and poor planning will just make their plight worse. On land, we've learned that some activities, or combinations of them, are hugely detrimental to local habitats and communities. The ocean is no different.

Marine spatial planning will map out our seas and designate the best areas for industry use. It calls for all of the different government agencies that have a toe in the ocean -- from fishing to shipping, offshore energy, and coastal development -- to talk to each other and work together; it will make them work better. It also ensures coastal communities and all ocean users have a voice in making decisions for how our oceans are used.

But first and foremost, marine spatial planning must ensure environmental protection and be based on sound science.

As I say in the film, "Unless we manage our demands on the ocean, we risk destroying the resources we depend on." With smart planning, we can transform America and take care of the ocean at the same time -- ensuring that our designs for the seas are sound and our water planet provides not only us, but our children with the means to thrive.