BAR HARBOR — Fishermen, boaters and the merchants who serve them are in for another round of changes to the production of nautical charts.
For nearly 200 years, NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey produced traditional paper charts.
Then in 2014, the agency announced a big change: it would cease production of single-sheet paper charts, sending mariners seeking print products to two companies who supply print-on-demand (POD) charts: OceanGrafix and East View Geospatial.
The supply of books of charts collected for a whole region, printed by companies such as Maptech ChartKit, or waterproof or other special printed charts, wasn’t affected by the 2014 change because those products are printed by private companies.
But the OCS is now contemplating a gradual “sunset” of not only the printing, but also producing the digital “raster” files used by POD vendors to make those other products possible.
It will still be possible to buy printed charts from the private companies, but they’ll look different.
The plan to stop producing raster products “directly impacts the POD vendors,” Captain Chris van Westendorp of NOAA told the Islander.
“The application that we are currently working on and collaborating with our POD vendors on is the NOAA Custom Chart,” he said. “That app takes the Electronic Navigational Chart (ENC) data and converts it into a raster-looking product which can be printed out. It will be customizable — that’s the future of paper charting.
“We’re still working on business rules for what can be printed,” he added, “but the PDFs are all going away. Whatever comes out of the NOAA Custom Chart tool is what’s going to be available.”
As outlined in the current plan, NOAA will spend the next five years improving its ENC products while simultaneously developing a “custom chart” website that will allow mariners to create printable charts covering the exact area in which they’re interested.
The change will also mean the end of “chart corrections,” which for many years have been published weekly by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Local Notice to Mariners.
“After NOAA paper nautical chart production ends there will likely no longer be a need for LNM Section IV, ‘Chart Corrections,'” an OCS document explains. “There may ultimately be a means to relate changes to NOAA Custom Charts, but that has yet to be determined. Other sections that use chart numbers to help identify the general location of features will have to use other means, because traditional charts and chart numbers will no longer exist … NOAA will work with the USCG and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to help define an appropriate method.”
The decision to switch entirely to ENC from paper reflects what has happened in the nautical marketplace. According to NOAA, since 2008, ENC sales have increased by 425 percent while sales of paper charts have dropped by half.
The NOAA decision reflects what is happening worldwide.
The International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency that sets standards for the shipping industry, now requires all large commercial vessels on international voyages to use ENCs.
In 2016, the Coast Guard began to let regulated commercial vessels in U.S. waters replace paper charts with ENCs.
The phase-out of paper navigational charts comes while NOAA is in the midst of a multi-year project to improve its existing ENC coverage.
Currently, the ENC catalog includes some 1,200 “cells,” often irregularly shaped, produced at more than 130 different scales. Eventually, NOAA will produce its ENCs using a standard gridded layout compiled in just a dozen standard scales.
The result, according to the charting agency, will be an increase in the number of ENC cells to some 9,000 and a significant improvement in both the level of detail and the consistency in the format among ENCs.
NOAA is seeking feedback from chart users and companies that provide products and services based on NOAA raster and electronic navigational chart products.
The feedback form is available online at nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/customer-service/assist.
Stephen Rappaport contributed to this story.