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Meeting focuses on marine economy

BRISTOL, R.I. - New England's marine economy has great potential for growth, but only if political and business leaders work together to promote the region and resolve long-standing conflicts.

That was the message delivered by speakers Monday at a forum sponsored by the New England Council.

At stake is whether the region will get its fair share of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research and development money that Congress will distribute over the next few years, said Michael Goodman, director of public policy and research at the University of Massachusetts' Donahue Institute.
"We are looking at a multi-billion-dollar industry with thousands of jobs and awesome opportunity in the domestic and international markets," he told a crowd of more than 200 people at Roger Williams University. "Will New England be at the table as a region? That's still an open question."

The New England Council, an alliance of the region's top business and government leaders, works on Capitol Hill to shape federal polices, such as increasing the availability of energy supplies and boosting the region's share of federal transportation spending. Illustrative of the council's power is the list of people who came Monday to speak, including Leon Panetta, who was President Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff, and Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, both of Rhode Island.

Monday's forum marked the council's first public event in its new initiative to promote the region's marine economy.

In the past, the council has focused on more "glamorous" industries, such as biotechnology, financial services and the creative economy, said Charles Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Policy. He said the council, in recent years, has not focused on a natural resource-based industry.

"It's a real reversal of what it has done in the past," said Colgan, who was a speaker at the event.

He said the region's marine economy has long been under-appreciated and undervalued. The marine economy includes commercial fishing, processors, aquaculture, shipbuilding, boat building, ports and marine transportation, marine construction, recreation and tourism.

Maggie Merrill, editorial director of Marine Technology Reporter, a trade magazine based in New York City, said the region is home to some of world's major players in marine technology and marine science, including private-sector manufacturers as well as research institutions like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

"It makes sense for the New England Council to bring everybody together," she said.

The council now will begin researching the issue in depth, and it later will issue a report with a list of goals for state and federal policy makers, said James Brett, the council's president.

He said it's a natural issue for the council because five of the region's six states have ocean coastlines.

The marine economy -- as well as the region's long maritime history -- are part New England's "brand," supplying the region with an identity and also an economic advantage, said Roy Nirschel, a council member and president of Roger Williams University.

But the marine economy is also plagued by conflicts, speakers noted. Many fishermen view aquaculture as a threat to their livelihood; pleasure yachts are taking away mooring space from fishing boats; coastal development is polluting clam beds; sailboats cruising in shipping lanes are interfering with container ships.

The council could help create a process that would allow people to sort out these conflicts so the region can move forward, said Lowell Richards, director of port planning and development for the Massachusetts Port Authority.

He said the council also should provide economic analysis of the relative economic value of different industry sectors, so that policy makers can make decisions that are less subjective.

"We collectively need to understand the economic value of all the uses associated with the water's edge," he said, "whether it's 20 miles out or 20 miles back."

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