When the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred in 2010, the fragility of the Gulf of Mexico was thrust into the limelight. Instead of the usual happy images of families on vacation, fishermen on the water, and glowing sunsets, the public experienced a five-month-long flood of oiled beaches, dead and dying animals, and small towns in economic ruin. Our perception of the Gulf began to change—from that of a near limitless and bountiful body of water to a vulnerable place susceptible to disaster.
Fast forward four years. At the end of March, the day I flew into Houston for the 2014 Summit on the State of the Gulf of Mexico (an event which pulled together hundreds of the top Gulf scientists, policy makers, and industry representatives), two ships collided in Galveston Bay. A punctured barge released nearly 170,000 gallons of oil into the water, and it quickly spread to nearby marshes, killing hundreds of birds and dozens of turtles and dolphins as it went.
The problems associated with Gulf oil production and the potential for a catastrophic disaster will not soon disappear. Cleanup efforts are a difficult and expensive undertaking, and the Gulf has only recently begun to see the trickle-down of money marked for restoration efforts from the 2010 spill. To try to use these funds most effectively, scientists have begun to talk about “comprehensive restoration strategies” and “long-term monitoring efforts.” While these activities are clearly necessary and important, the fundamental truth is that many places in the Gulf were not well-explored before the spill, and they remain unexamined today due to technological and cost limitations. One example is the deep sea corals, like those under 1,600 feet of water at Viosca Knolls, which take centuries to grow. Modern restoration technologies are simply not able to create new coral, even assuming that we could pinpoint and comprehensively identify damaged reefs.
Faced with this dilemma, the most reasonable alternative to direct fixes is compensatory restoration and protection. If an area is protected from extractive and damaging activities (such as bottom trawling or gas exploration), that site will be more able to rebound in the event of large-scale trauma (such as acidifying waters or an oil spill). In fact, this is one of the key elements of our Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) initiative, which is designed to catalyze strong protection for at least 20% of the ecosystems in each marine biogeographic region of the world’s oceans by 2030. Only through strongly protected areas can we hope to fully protect our seas—and then only if we can identify the right places to safeguard.
Our new report—Gulf Gems: Treasured Places in Troubled Waters—highlights ten areas that we believe are some of the best options for compensatory protection actions in the Gulf. These sites cover many of the biogeographic ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico, from sunlit seagrass beds to deep sea coral habitats. They were selected for their uniqueness, current level of exploitation, vulnerability to future activities, and biological diversity, among other criteria. Some have been studied for decades, and others are still being explored for the very first time. We believe that protecting these areas would go a long way to ensuring a vibrant and sustained Gulf of Mexico.
At the Summit on the State of the Gulf, I had the chance to share our report with a wide range of scientists, policy makers, and analysts working on Gulf restoration. Each was impressed with the unique importance of the selected sites and encouraged by the potential for outreach and education about these significant places. Unfortunately, over the three days of the conference very little conversation occurred about the need for protected places, even though hours and hours of discussion were devoted to the need for monitoring efforts. But what help does monitoring provide if we have no standard to compare it against? Only by identifying and protecting the best remaining places can we know what efforts are still needed—otherwise, we may fall forever victim to the phenomenon of the “shifting baseline”, where our perceptions of environmental norms shift over time alongside changing natural conditions.
The images of the 2010 spill provided an opportunity to talk about nutrient overloads, overfishing and habitat loss—all problems exacerbated by the 200 million gallons of oil that gushed into the sea. Instead of waiting for the next disaster, we should be proactive in protecting the Gulf of Mexico for us and future generations.