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Vikki N. Spruill

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It's Time We Take the Pulse of the Gulf

Posted: 07/19/11 07:14 PM ET

It has been one year since BP's Macondo well was capped, ending the continuous flow of toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico and allowing all of us to breathe a (very short) sigh of relief before continuing our work to restore the Gulf to a healthy state. We all know that work is far from over.

I spent my formative years on the Gulf Coast of Florida and went to college in Florida and New Orleans. Seeing the coastline of my youth stained by crude oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster last summer affected me deeply. I was heartsick at the images of flowing oil, tarred beaches, blackened marshes and dead wildlife, and saddened that so many people spent that summer away from large areas of the region that were not directly affected.

The Gulf is paying the price for decades of neglect and degradation. There are already signs of coastal erosion, pollution, overfishing and excessive nutrient runoff that has produced a dead zone of depleted oxygen. These problems threaten wildlife and the people who depend on a healthy Gulf for jobs and the food on their plate. And these problems didn't end when the well was capped.

It's time we take the pulse of the Gulf.

We need a comprehensive plan to address restoration in the Gulf, and a key part of that plan must be to establish a long-term research and monitoring program so that we can better understand changes in the ecosystem and develop management solutions that keep our environment and economy healthy. Ocean Conservancy's proposal for Gulf restoration calls for a well-funded and robust science program that will help guide our efforts by providing research to support the design, selection and evaluation of restoration projects.

A portion of BP's Clean Water Act penalties should be invested to establish a long-term endowment that can support this program. Earnings from the investment should be awarded annually on a competitive basis to government agencies, academic institutions and other entities that will carry out integrated research and monitoring projects over the long-term.

The endowment will ensure that a sustained source of funds is available without cost to taxpayers -- and that research and monitoring can continue to take the pulse of the Gulf for years to come. After all, if you are working to heal a patient, you need to keep close track of their vitals before, during and after the operation.

A research and monitoring program will help us evaluate the effectiveness of projects over time and allow us to adapt our management and restoration strategies as new information becomes available. And perhaps most importantly, it will allow us to tell more success stories -- to know when important habitats and valuable species are on the road to recovery, not just when they are threatened.

Strong community involvement is essential if we really want to take the pulse of the Gulf. Citizen volunteers could assist in observations and data gathering, and communities with a long history in the region should be consulted for traditional ecological knowledge. Furthermore, establishing a research and monitoring program provides new economic opportunities for people who live and work in the region.

We know that well-funded, long-term monitoring programs work because we've seen success with a similar program in Alaska. Following the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Prince William Sound, an early decision was made to heavily invest restoration funds in science to guide long-term management. That investment continues 20 years later.

In the case of post-Exxon Valdez restoration efforts, the North Pacific Research Board was endowed as a source of competitive grants to support research that has contributed to the management and conservation of marine resources. This research has improved scientists' ability to forecast ecosystem changes, answered important questions about fish-habitat relationships and led to more informed resource-management decisions.

For example, when significant numbers of snow crab were being accidentally caught in nets intended for flatfish and cod, endowment-funded surveys were able to spot areas of high snow crab density. Further research established that raising fishing trawls a few inches off the bottom would allow these commercially important crabs to escape fishing nets while still catching targeted fish; it was a win-win-win for the flatfish, cod and snow crab fisheries in the area.

We cannot continue to let the Gulf suffer. Pillars of the regional economy -- tourism, energy, recreational fishing and the seafood industry -- cannot prosper without the natural resources that support them.

I am inspired, though, to see Gulf communities taking steps to restore the health of a national treasure that is their home and once was mine. And I am proud that Ocean Conservancy is right there with them working to bring back to health a region of incredible riches that provides jobs, recreation and seafood for so many.