When we look out to the blue horizon, the ocean seems like a calm, vast space. But what we see on the surface of the water is deceiving — the ocean is alive with activity and it is crowded with wildlife and industrial uses. Like urban sprawl on land, the demand for space in our oceans and on our coasts is growing. New renewable energy and aquaculture facilities, commercial fishing, recreation, offshore drilling and shipping are all competing for space, and our demands continue to grow. Our ocean is getting crowded at a time when it is vulnerable to major changes. [IMGCAP(1)]Climate change is damaging the ocean — temperatures are rising and ocean acidification is taking place as the water absorbs the excess carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. In addition to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we must protect ocean ecosystems the best we can in the face of our growing industrial demands, to help them remain resilient against the threat of climate change.Protections are critical. A healthy ocean is essential to our health and the stability of our economy. The ocean is the engine that drives our climate. It provides much of the oxygen we breathe and food we eat. It is also important to our economy — more than $1 trillion, or one-tenth of the nation’s annual gross domestic product, is generated from the coasts. We need to bring order to the ocean and provide a framework for balancing ocean conservation and competing interests, which can be achieved through a comprehensive planning approach called Marine Spatial Planning. It is already being used effectively by other countries — and is under way in states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island — to do just that. It puts a process in place to manage the ecosystem as a whole and to evaluate cumulative impacts of the many uses of the ocean. Marine Spatial Planning will help us to be better coordinated in the ways we use our ocean. Today, many separate decisions, plans and regulations govern ocean industries — in fact more than 20 federal agencies oversee various aspects of the ocean. Marine Spatial Planning allows us to maximize the economic and social benefits provided by the ocean, while protecting our most fragile marine ecosystems. When implemented properly, Marine Spatial Planning provides comprehensive, proactive planning and long-term environmental conservation.President Barack Obama has made it clear that clean energy is the future for our country. He has also recognized that the ocean plays an important role in meeting this challenge and that we need a clear plan for using the ocean to fulfill this role. On June 12, the president issued a presidential memorandum that calls for national ocean policy and creates an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. In the memorandum he recognized the need for a clear plan to conserve the ocean while reducing conflicts among ocean industries through Marine Spatial Planning. A first round of recommendations from the task force is due out in September.Congress has an unprecedented opportunity. The focus on our clean energy future is turning attention to the ocean as a solution to our energy challenges. Now is the time to pursue smarter strategies for managing the use of the ocean from a national perspective, with conservation as a core component. It is also time to reinvest in the ocean as we demand more from it. The ocean is a resource that can continue to produce what we need, but only if we preserve it. We are at a crossroads — now is the time to make real changes to protect the ocean. Our children and their children depend on us to make the right decisions today. President Obama has already taken important steps — we look forward to witnessing action that will result from his visionary words.Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of Ocean Conservancy.