It’s the end of an era: NOAA announced this week it will no longer make traditional paper nautical charts.

Effective April 13, 2014, the government will only provide other forms of nautical charts, including print-on-demand charts and versions for electronic charting

Electronic charts are widely used by commercial pilots to navigate the waters around the United States. They will continue to be available, as will print-on-demand charts, but traditional paper charts will no longer be available after April 13, 2014. Photo from NOAA


Capt. Shep Smith, chief of the Marine Chart Division for NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, said that the print-on-demand (POD) charts, which already are in wide use, provide benefits over the traditional maps.

“We believe this meets people’s needs well,” Smith said. “They are printed at the time of ordering so they are up to date.”

That’s a big difference from the traditional paper charts, which sometimes are not updated for a decade. “Once they are printed, they are already becoming stale,” Smith said.

In addition to the POD charts, NOAA will continue to create electronic navigational charts and raster navigational charts, which are updated weekly. Also, NOAA will make PDFs of nautical charts available for free on a three-month trial basis (from Oct. 22, 2013-Jan. 22, 2014), according to the organization’s website.

Nevertheless, the move away from the traditional paper (or lithographic) nautical charts marks a sea change for the Office of Coast Survey.

President Thomas Jefferson formed NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey in 1807, and it has since surveyed the seafloor, updated charts and performed other maritime navigational duties.

In 1862, the Office of Coast Survey started making the lithographic, or paper, nautical charts available to the public through commercial vendors. The prints proved necessary not only with navigators but popular with many people for their color and attention to detail. They have become staples on the walls of waterfront restaurants and displayed as works of art in people’s homes.

“It’s an iconic part of coastal culture,” Smith said. “(But) that doesn’t necessarily have to change. There are 35,000 charts and images that are available online.”

Print-on-demand charts will continue to be made available for navigation. Photo from NOAA.

In fact, historic maps and charts can be downloaded at NOAA’s website.

At Lakeside Fishing Shop in St. Clair Shores, Mich., Veronica Pinto shrugged off the change. She said the store stopped selling NOAA’s nautical charts years ago, and she said many of the local fishermen who visit her store use GPS devices to navigate nearby Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River.