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An ROV cruises the Gulf of Mexico seafloor with NOAA’s research ship, Okeanos Explorer. Credit: NOAA
An ROV cruises the Gulf of Mexico seafloor with NOAA’s research ship, Okeanos Explorer. Credit: NOAA

Restoring the Gulf Beyond the Shore

The Gulf of Mexico’s rich waters touch our shores and our lives, oftentimes in ways we don’t fully recognize. In addition to countless personal and recreational benefits for those of us who live here, the Gulf generates food and energy for the country and supports a vibrant tourism industry. And regardless of whether you live near or far, what happens beneath the surface of the Gulf affects our collective future.

With over 15,000 species calling these waters home, countless habitats and dozens of migratory visitors – Atlantic bluefin tuna, sperm whales and northern gannets, to name a few of my favorites – the Gulf plays host to an incredible and unique ecosystem full of interesting creatures and complex dynamics connecting land and sea. Even before the BP oil disaster, the Gulf was struggling under the weight of dead zones, overfishing, coastal habitat loss and more. With much of this damage underwater and out of sight, restoration becomes even more difficult to define, because we must imagine what we cannot directly see and estimate what we cannot directly count.

In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, everyone’s talking about how we restore the Gulf Coast. But the Gulf of Mexico is more than what we can see from the shoreline. If we restore the coast without restoring the deep waters, we’re only addressing half the problem.

That’s why Ocean Conservancy has created Restoring the Gulf Beyond the Shore. It’s a short guide to the wildlife and habitats at home in the Gulf’s waters and why it is so important that we ensure the health and safety of our fish, dolphins, seabirds, sea floor and whales (yes, whales in the Gulf!).

Along the coastline, restoration is defined as replacing something that has been damaged. It is a tangible process that creates new oyster beds, marshes and barrier islands. Out past where the eye can see however, restoration must take a different shape. Restoring deep-water species and habitats means gathering knowledge through science and technology that we can use to reduce human impacts and other sources of stress and give marine species the best opportunity to recover on their own. This approach is known as natural recovery and there are precious few other ways to restore fish, dolphins, turtles or deep-sea corals.

In an era of shrinking budgets, science and knowledge have been something of a luxury in the Gulf. And now restoration funds resulting from this disaster offer an unprecedented opportunity to repair what was damaged, fix chronic problems and enhance what remains. The decisions we make now will impact the region for decades to come. The only question that remains is how to invest in successful and strategic restoration projects and processes which restore the Gulf ecosystem upon which so much depends.

The long answer is that restoration must be comprehensive, from the rivers that feed the estuaries, to the deepest expanses of the seafloor; from the communities that call the Gulf Coast home to where the BP oil disaster began. Smart and immediate investments in projects addressing pressing needs in the Gulf must be made, as well as in foundational projects that support ongoing and future restoration efforts. If we are truly going to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect and enhance the Gulf and its unique culture, we must ensure that restoration of the marine environment is an integral part of our approach.

The short answer? Let’s make those decisions count.

To find out how you can help and learn more about Ocean Conservancy’s recommendations for restoring the Gulf beyond the shore, visit our website: www.oceanconservancy.org.

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