In Puerto Rico, New Coastal Management Plan Must Protect Nature and Economy

Officials want public input on strategy to safeguard corals, mangroves, fisheries—and a thriving local culture

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In Puerto Rico, New Coastal Management Plan Must Protect Nature and Economy
Close-up of mangrove tree growing by a crystal blue river
Mangroves in Puerto Rico are valuable ecosystems that host wildlife, store carbon, and protect coastlines from storm surge.
Shane Gross

Puerto Rico’s coasts, home to 2.4 million people, are an economic force, drawing tourists from around the world and supporting nearly 700,000 jobs that generate about $20 billion in earnings annually.

With so much at stake, local leaders are focusing on how to protect and manage the island’s coastal assets, which range from mangrove forests and wetlands to valuable fish populations and endangered turtles. This fall, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources began updating its coastal management strategy for 2023-25 as part of the island’s participation in the federal Coastal Zone Enhancement Program.  

Department leaders are considering how to address problems such as rising seas and polluted runoff and the best ways to protect resources such as coral reefs, which contribute more than $180 million to the economy each year, partly through tourism.

As part of that effort, Pew is collaborating with the department to ensure that the strategy addresses the island’s most critical coastal management needs and includes recommendations from stakeholders. Opportunities for public comment in coming months will allow people to voice their ideas and opinions on the plan. Once the strategy is approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Puerto Rico will receive funding to implement it.  

The Coastal Zone Enhancement Program is one of the focal areas of the National Coastal Zone Management Program, which Congress established in 1972. States and territories can join the voluntary national initiative by developing coastal management programs.  Once NOAA approves, the governments become eligible to receive grants and technical assistance. NOAA has awarded more than $2 billion under the program since 1972.   

Puerto Rico joined the national program in 1978. Recent NOAA funding has helped to establish partnerships with local nongovernmental organizations to manage the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve, which is one of the main coral hot spots on the island’s west coast, and the Guánica State Forest, one of the most extensive tropical dry forests in the world, and to assess damage from hurricanes Irma and Maria and address impacts from pollution and climate change.

The national program encourages a comprehensive approach to management that balances coastal resource use, economic development, and conservation. It includes six key elements:

  • Protecting natural resources.
  • Managing development in high hazard areas.
  • Giving development priority to coastal-dependent uses.
  • Providing public access for recreation.
  • Prioritizing water-dependent uses, such as marinas, fishing, water-based tourism, and recreation.
  • Coordinating state and federal actions to be consistent with coastal management goals.

Puerto Rico’s environmental officials hope to set priorities for the territory’s updated strategies in the coming months and complete the revision by mid-2022.

With the upcoming public comment period, the coastal management strategy affords an opportunity for citizens to get involved in protecting some of Puerto Rico’s most important assets. The coasts are central to the people’s way of life, and a comprehensive plan will help protect the island’s culture, environment, and economy.

Holly Binns is a project director and Yasmin Vélez-Sánchez is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project to conserve marine life in the United States.

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