The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster harmed communities from Texas to Florida and damaged the Gulf ecosystem from the ocean floor to the surface across a vast swath of waters and shoreline. Restoring these damaged resources will require a comprehensive, Gulf-wide restoration plan that covers coastal environments, blue-water resources and Gulf communities.
Because wildlife like birds, fish and marine mammals move throughout the ecosystem making use of coastal, nearshore and offshore environments, effective restoration requires a holistic approach. For example, restoration efforts for oyster reefs or barrier islands in Texas should complement the work done in Alabama or in Florida so that the full suite of species and habitats can recover.
The state and federal officials responsible for creating such a plan, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees, are making decisions about how to spend the balance of the $1 billion committed by BP for early restoration. The decisions they make about early restoration and about the longer-term restoration program to follow have the potential to pay enormous dividends to the Gulf for generations.
To help the Trustees build an effective plan, a coalition of nonprofit groups, including Ocean Conservancy, has created a portfolio of 39 projects that reflect an integrated and Gulf-wide approach to restoration.
Here are a few examples from the portfolio:
- Sea Turtle Nesting Beach Conservation: The five species of sea turtles found in the Gulf are all either endangered or threatened. This project would protect their nesting habitat and nearby waters as well as provide for rehabilitation and care of injured sea turtles.
- Large-scale Seagrass Restoration and Protection: Seagrass beds are essential components of healthy, productive and biodiverse aquatic ecosystems. This project aims to restore those areas damaged by vessel traffic, boom placement and other response and recovery efforts in ecologically sensitive areas.
- Monitoring Marine Mammals, Sea Turtles and Bluefin Tuna: Additional observation and biological sampling in the Gulf will help scientists understand any lingering oil-exposure effects on these species.
- Oyster Reef Restoration: Rebuilding reefs for juvenile oysters to colonize also provides nursery habitat for fish and protects shorelines from erosion. The reefs also provide oyster-harvesting opportunities for a Gulf industry that is crucial to local economies.
- Threatened Coral Recovery: Restoration of shallow-water corals will provide critical habitat for fishes and other reef inhabitants, improving the health and resilience of this unique reef community.
- Rebuilding Marsh and Barrier Islands: Marsh areas provide nursery habitat and help prevent dead zones by absorbing excess nutrients; barrier islands provide critical habitat for nesting birds. By restoring and maintaining these ecosystems, a wide range of Gulf species benefit. Coastal wetlands and barrier islands are also essential to the protection and resilience of Gulf Coast communities.
No doubt, other projects could have been included, but the point is to start a conversation about how we collectively fulfill our vision of a healthy and prosperous Gulf. This portfolio is more than a list of projects; it also initiates an ongoing dialogue about how to most effectively restore the damage to the Gulf from the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy.
The coalition's recommendations for effective restoration include:
- Clearly stated principles and an approach that considers how the projects fit together for maximum gain
- Harnessing nature's own processes for renewal by restoring wetlands, nearshore habitats and other coastal environments
- Science-based management changes that reverse fish and wildlife population losses and habitat degradation
- Taking the pulse of the Gulf on a continuing basis by monitoring the results of restoration efforts
To produce the best results for the Gulf, restoration will require a comprehensive plan and decades of careful work, not a build-and-leave scenario. The NRDA Trustees should begin now to put in place an approach they can follow throughout the restoration planning process. Future generations in the Gulf are counting on it.