NOAA soon will stop producing paper charts

The federal government, which has been printing paper nautical charts since the Civil War, is pulling the plug in April.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Coast Survey, the source for more than 1,000 charts of U.S. coastal waters, announced in October 2013 it would cease producing them after 152 years because of declining demand. It cited the growth of digital, electronic and print-on-demand charts, as well as budget constraints.

After April 13, NOAA will continue to provide charts in those alternative formats.

“Like most other mariners, I grew up on NOAA lithographic charts,” said Rear Adm. Gerd Glang, director of the Office of Coast Survey. “We know that changing chart formats and availability will be a difficult change for some mariners.”

But Capt. Shep Smith, chief of the Coast Survey’s Marine Chart Division, added: “Fortunately, advancements in computing and mobile technologies give us many more options than (were) possible years ago.”

Since 1999, the NOAA charts have been printed by the Federal Aviation Administration and sold by commercial agents. NOAA will continue to create the increasingly popular print-on-demand (POD) charts, updated paper charts available from NOAA-certified printers. Electronic navigational charts (ENC) and raster navigational charts (RNC), used in a variety of electronic charting systems and updated weekly, will be available for free on the Coast Survey website.

NOAA also announced a new product: full-scale PDF charts, available for download on a trial basis.

Because customers frequently still ask for products such as waterproof charts and chart books containing supplemental information, “we are investigating new opportunities for companies to fill these market niches, using the most up-to-date information directly from NOAA,” Smith said.

NOAA sells about 60,000 of the 3-by-4-foot lithographic charts each year for their $20 production cost. The agency will continue to spend about $100 million a year to survey waterways.

“As much as we’d like to continue the tradition of lithography,” NOAA says on its website, “it is no longer justified as a use of tax dollars.”
Reaction to the change has been mixed, but most people expected it.

At New York Nautical in Manhattan, one of the oldest nautical supply stores in America, manager James Smith said he sells 30 to 40 traditional paper charts every month compared to hundreds decades ago.

“Some professional mariners like them more than the print-on-demand charts,” he said. “Mostly it’s artists and interior decorators. They frame them or blow them up to do ceilings.”

Most maritime professionals about to make a voyage prefer print-on-demand charts because “they want all corrections applied,” Smith said. “But if they are just planning something, a lot of people like the paper charts because they’re much more durable.”

Bill Price, harbor administrator for the Richardson’s Bay Regional Agency based in Sausalito, Calif., laments the impending loss of the traditional paper chart.

“(It’s) a dinosaur in terms of old-style navigation,” Price said. “We’re stuck with what there is now, which is electronic. Nobody knows how to do coastal navigation anymore and nobody’s known about celestial for years. … I think the demise of coastal navigation skills is far more horrifying than just plain old charts going away. People can’t get from Point A to Point B without something electronic telling them how to get there.”       

By Professional Mariner Staff