Last week I had the opportunity to attend the “State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit” hosted by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that transfixed and horrified the nation in 2010, the Gulf community brought its best thinking about the way to heal this marine ecosystem.
Gulf of Mexico conservationists argue the Deepwater Horizon disaster was just the most visible recent threat to the health of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. Chronic overfishing, coastal development, dead zones, and warming seas caused by global climate change have long degraded and undermined the resilience of the Gulf environment. Still, the Gulf Summit set an ambitious goal: to re-cast the oil spill as a historically transformative event for the Gulf ecosystem.
On the opening day of the Summit, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, created by President Obama in response to the spill, released its strategy for addressing Gulf-wide restoration. It establishes four goals: to restore and conserve habitats; restore water quality; enhance community resilience; and replenish and protect living coastal and marine resources. This last goal includes conserving and protecting offshore environments, which Marine Conservation Institute views as an essential component of any restoration blueprint.
Apparently we’re not the only ones who think so. During her Wednesday luncheon speech, former First Lady Laura Bush supported the concept of a national marine monument or sanctuary along what some call the “Islands of the Stream,” a string of underwater hard-bottom habitats running along the outer Gulf shelf from Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary to the Florida Keys Sanctuary, and up along the southeast coast of the United States.
While the release of the Task Force’s strategy is an important milestone, there remain more questions than answers at this point about how implementation will work. For example, Congress has just begun to debate how to pay for restoration activities, and the Natural Resources Damages Assessment Trustee Council (a state and federal authority created by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990) is still in the planning phase of ensuring that the public is compensated for the harm done to natural resources by the oil spill.
One of the products of the Summit was a Report Card developed by the scientific community, modeled on similar tools measuring progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Report Card has been crafted to provide a scientific baseline to judge whether restoration activities are achieving long-term desired goals, and to give guidance concerning what policies have worked. The report card hopefully will provide a clear-eyed, shared understanding of how we’re doing over the long run. After all, it’s not unreasonable to expect restoration to take years. After all, the Gulf didn’t reach its current degraded condition overnight – the blowout just riveted our attention on this region.