top of page

Floating Forward: New WH Strategy for EEZ Mapping, Characterization, and Exploration

By Claire Levesque, External Affairs Specialist, Virgil Group LLC

Image: Geographic distribution of the unmapped areas within the U.S. ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes waters. Credit: NOAA NCEI

June is National Ocean Month, and in that theme, on June 12 the Ocean Science and Technology Subcommittee of the White House Ocean Policy Committee (est. 2018) released the “National Strategy for Mapping, Exploring, and Characterizing the United States Exclusive Economic Zone” (Strategy) on June 12, 2020. The strategy aims to build critical understanding of our Nation’s oceans, and develop information to address gaps in our current wealth of ocean knowledge. In doing so, the Strategy will significantly advance the economic, environmental, and national security of our nation’s marine waters. I will walk through the highlights and areas to watch moving forward. But first, why do these efforts this matter?

The EEZ, or Exclusive Economic Zone, extends 200 nautical miles from sea baseline. Encompassing 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean, EEZ territory is larger than the combined land of all 50 states. In 2019, NOAA estimated that the ocean economy produces more than $300 billion goods and services, nearly 154,000 businesses are ocean-dependent, and more than 3 million people are employed by ocean-dependent entities. In addition, the ecosystems, energy, critical resources, biodiversity, and living resources in our oceans are likely worth billions of dollars- if not trillions.

Mapping: As of November 2019, only 40% of the U.S. EEZ has been mapped. Mapping supports nautical charting, habitat restoration, and wind energy positioning. Newer methods enable drones to complete shoreline mapping, which lessens the risk for personnel.

Exploring: Exploration is the initial assessment of an area’s physical, chemical, and biological characteristics; further exploration creates opportunities for unprecedented economic opportunity- and opens up a realm of untapped resources, energy and ocean jobs.

Characterizing: Further information on depth, shape, and composition of the United States’ EEZ seafloor will open up opportunities to understand ecosystem functionality and adaptability, and prompt better protective measures.

Despite the many benefits of ocean mapping, there is one major drawback: it is extremely expensive. In 2020, NOAA requested an additional $8.5 million to simply coordinate and help implement the Strategy for EEZ mapping, characterization, and exploration. $4.4 million is to be used for the near-shore of Alaska, and the rest allocated for Arctic and sub-Arctic shoreline. Though exact numbers are vague, it’s clear that current and future partnerships within the ocean community will help allocate resources to improve the cost-effectiveness of ocean mapping.


The Strategy, informed by Public Comments from Federal agencies, marine industries, academia, and non-governmental organizations, outlines five major goals for ocean mapping, characterization, and exploration:

1. Coordinate interagency efforts and resources.

Immediate development of an Implementation Plan (IP) by the Council will identify specific actions that describe how the goals, objectives, and timelines presented in the Strategy will be accomplished. Public comments on the components of a draft Implementation Plan will be accepted via forums, including the National Ocean Exploration Forum, up to December 9, 2020.

2. Map the United States’ EEZ.

Waters 40 meters deep and below are set to be mapped via swarth sonar by 2030. Nearshore waters, or those less than 40 meters deep, will be measured by light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and, due to the need for advanced equipment, this goal ought to be met by 2040.

3. Explore and characterize Priority Areas of EEZ.

Initially, areas of interest for exploration and characterization must be designated in order to 1) explore the ocean, 2) make new discoveries, and 3) characterize ocean resources. Priorities for characterization will be based upon statutory requirements, Federal agency missions, strategic national issues, Administration policy priorities, and stakeholder perspectives.

4. Develop and mature new and emerging technologies.

Enhanced collaboration among Federal agencies will be vital to promote and advance new science and technologies to increase the scope, pace, and efficiency of mapping.

5. Build public and private partnerships.

Enhance opportunities between state governments, private industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations to ensure goals are met by target dates (2030, 2040). This will leverage common interests and avoid duplication of efforts across entities.

What to Expect:

The Strategy’s key to success is coordination and collaboration between Federal agencies and non-Federal partners. This is a call to action for relevant parties- one that will blend scientific inquiry, entrepreneurial enterprise, philanthropic endeavor and public and private investment.

Without further knowledge of our EEZ’s seabed depth, shape, and topography, we fail to address, utilize, or protect the extent of our ocean’s resources. Though the Strategy does not mandate the collection of this data, it does create opportunities for better collaboration between partners. These multi-sector partnerships may utilize Federal contracts, grants, and cooperative research and development agreements, via the National Oceanic Partnership Program. Partners may range from public companies, like the geospatial company Fugro, to foundations, like the Ocean Exploration Trust, to academic institutions like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

If interested parties utilize the partnerships and resources proposed by the White House, the United States could reach unprecedented depths in our ocean knowledge.

If this matters to you, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership is hosting July, August, and September workshops to identify national ocean exploration priorities in the Pacific. Additionally, December 9, 2020 is the deadline for public comments on the Implementation Plan.

Looking further down the road, the White House Ocean Policy Committee is charged with developing an Implementation Plan for the National Strategy for Mapping, Exploring, and Characterizing the United States Exclusive Economic Zone by September 10, 2020, and developing a platform for partners in the ocean and coastal waters community to collaborate and engage by June 12, 2022.


bottom of page