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Vikki N. Spruill

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Now Is the Time to Invest in Restoring the Health of the Gulf of Mexico

Posted: 12/07/11 03:12 PM ET

More than 18 months have passed since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, but evidence of the spill remains. Unusual numbers of dead dolphins, turtles and other wildlife have been found in the Gulf in the months following the disaster, and even now we do not understand the cause. Local residents still have unanswered questions about the long-term health effects of the oil and the dispersants used to combat it.

It took just 89 days for that well to spew over 4 million barrels of oil, but it will take much longer for us to fully understand the impact of this disaster -- and longer still to rebuild a healthy and prosperous Gulf of Mexico.

The Gulf of Mexico is a national treasure and an economic driver for the entire country, sustaining robust recreational and commercial fishing industries as well as thriving tourism-based businesses. According to NOAA, the five Gulf states produce a gross domestic product (GDP) of over $2.3 trillion each year, which places the region seventh on a list of the world's largest economies. This is a place where the culture and the economy are intrinsically linked to the quality of the environment and natural resources.

Building a framework for long-term restoration

In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, the Gulf states, in partnership with several federal agencies, are moving forward with restoration efforts through the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA). They are tasked with restoring health and vitality to a region that has been suffering an ongoing environmental and economic tragedy caused by coastal erosion, pollution, overfishing and other problems that didn't end when the well was capped.

This week, the Task Force released its final restoration strategy document. This long-awaited strategy is pivotal for restoring the Gulf of Mexico from the impact of the BP oil disaster and addressing decades of degradation in the region.

Ocean Conservancy has developed a companion resource intended to inform and guide the restoration planning and implementation process being led by the Task Force and NRDA. This report, "Restoring the Gulf: A Framework for Ecosystem Restoration in the Gulf of Mexico," includes an in-depth look at the Gulf ecosystem, stressors to the ecosystem and science-based recommendations for how to successfully restore this critical region. The Framework's recommended strategies, principles and project selection criteria will help provide important direction as restoration planning is completed and moves to implementation.

The Gulf's coastal and marine habitats form an incredibly productive ecosystem. Employing sound restoration strategies in the region would support a diversity of habitats important to fish and wildlife and related industries and livelihoods, strengthen the resiliency of coastal communities vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise, and reduce the risk to private property and infrastructure.

Ocean Conservancy's Framework combines research findings and recommendations as a blueprint to restore the Gulf and is based on our experts' deep experience in the region as well as lessons learned from past restoration efforts and direct experience following the Exxon Valdez disaster. Ultimately, our goal is to ensure that environmental restoration efforts advance the long-term health and resilience of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem and the people and communities who depend on it.

Now is the time to invest in restoring the health of this valuable resource

With the Task Force's strategy in place, Congress must do its part to ensure that BP oil disaster fines are used to restore the Gulf Coast environment and communities. Unless Congress acts, fines paid by BP and others responsible for the oil disaster will be deposited into the Federal Treasury instead of going to repair the area that was devastated by the spill.

The RESTORE Act directs these Clean Water Act penalties to the Gulf states. This bipartisan legislation also establishes an endowment to support a long-term research and monitoring program that will continue to take the pulse of the Gulf for years to come. It's vital that Gulf residents, stakeholders and resource managers know whether restoration efforts are improving ecosystem health over time so they can share success stories or adjust their strategies as needed.

This week, the House held a hearing on whether to move the RESTORE Act forward, and the Senate is considering similar legislation as well. Congress must cross the finish line on legislation as quickly as possible so that the work of restoring the Gulf and its communities can be completed. Without proper funding, none of these vital recommendations to fulfill the vision of a healthy Gulf are possible.