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A shallow-water coral reef in the Florida Keys. Photo courtesy of NOAA
A shallow-water coral reef in the Florida Keys. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Ocean Conservancy and the Gulf

The Gulf of Mexico is an extraordinary place, but despite the growing number of people who live, work and play on the Gulf Coast, we know very little about the Gulf in its entirety. Its wonders are bountiful, and its resources provide the people who live along its shores a unique way of life. Ocean Conservancy has worked in the Gulf region for over two decades, with a primary focus on managing our fisheries sustainably. However, on April 20, 2010, the focus of that work took on a new direction. With the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform, it became evident that this large marine ecosystem was in danger and would need extensive restoration to recover from the devastation.

In order to restore what was lost, we must first know what was there.

The Gulf was no stranger to degradation prior to the BP spill. Land loss, overfishing and polluted storm water runoff are just a few of the factors that have hindered the productivity of the Gulf ecosystem for decades.

After the oil well was capped and the focus shifted from cleanup to recovery, Ocean Conservancy advocated for comprehensive restoration, from the coast to the deep sea and including impacted coastal communities, in order to make the Gulf whole.

A fisherman inspects his cast net under the bridge in Lake Charles, LA. Photo by Wesley Hitt
A fisherman inspects his cast net under the bridge in Lake Charles, LA. Photo by Wesley Hitt

The BP disaster brought to light the unfortunate lack of baseline scientific information we have on the Gulf’s ecosystem. In order to restore what was lost, we must first know what was there. Without good scientific data and an understanding of both the species and their habitats, restoration efforts are not complete. Ocean Conservancy has convened experts from around the Gulf Coast to identify projects that would restore the marine environment, and the need for a comprehensive Gulf of Mexico marine habitat map has been identified as a critical piece of the restoration puzzle.

Mapping the Gulf would fill large gaps in our understanding by telling us the geographic location and reach of each type of habitat, as well as their condition at this time. It would also allow scientists to more accurately study the abundance and health of fish populations and provide fishery managers the information needed to better sustain a healthy fishing industry. This type of project is unique, in that it builds knowledge rather than habitats.

There are two core components to creating a complete map of Gulf seafloor habitat. The first involves collecting and integrating all of the maps created by various state, federal, university and private efforts. Looking only at federal programs, the United States Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management all have programs that require habitat maps from upland watersheds to the deep Gulf of Mexico canyons. The information from each is collected with different goals in mind, with different technologies and in different scales. So it will take time and effort to put all of these maps into a common language collected on a single site, but combining the maps we already have is a cost-effective way to begin to fill our gaps in understanding.

The second component involves equipping research vessels with sonar technology and actively collecting information on the seafloor to generate habitat maps. There are a number of ongoing partnerships with state agencies and university scientists to add mapping technology to vessels doing fishery research cruises. In some cases, the cost of sending a research vessel to sea is half of the entire project budget, so merging fisheries research and habitat mapping projects not only advances two critical restoration and information concepts, but also represents a smart investment of resources.

In the end, this mapping project will involve a number of agencies and interested stakeholders working together. Ocean Conservancy, and all of the universities and research organizations in the Gulf are dedicated to ensuring the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem is fully restored.

If you’d like more information, you can go to www.oceanconservancy.org/gulf to find out how you can help ensure that restoration of the Gulf of Mexico is done right. And stay tuned to All At Sea Southeast for updates on the Ocean Conservancy’s work in the Gulf and future opportunities to get involved.

Ocean Conservancy educates and empowers citizens to take action on behalf of the ocean. From the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico to the halls of Congress, Ocean Conservancy brings people together to find solutions for our water planet. Informed by science, our work guides policy and engages people in protecting the ocean and its wildlife for future generations.

 

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