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Voices of the Gulf
Gulf Oil Spill: Four Years Later
Q&A with Jeff DeQuattro
A Conservancy scientist reflects on restoration progress since the Gulf oil spill and what lies ahead for the Gulf.
Because we usually attach ourselves to specific dates to mark anniversaries, it’s easy to forget that the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and spill lasted well into the summer. Four years ago this month the Conservancy was busy responding to the unfolding disaster. Since that time, the Conservancy and its partners have ramped up efforts to protect and restore vital habitats essential to the health of the Gulf of Mexico and the well-being of both human and natural communities.
Here, nature.org gets some perspective from Jeff DeQuattro, a Conservancy scientist based in Mobile Bay, Alabama. When the spill first started, Jeff had only been with the Conservancy for 6 months, hired to implement a 2-year oyster reef restoration project in Alabama. Today, as the Conservancy’s Director of Restoration in the Gulf, he works across the 5-state region, helping to coordinate large-scale restoration efforts.
This blog series features the latest doings in the Gulf as reported by our scientists and staff. View the whole series.
In the four years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, what progress has been made to restore the Gulf of Mexico?
The Conservancy has worked in the Gulf of Mexico for more than three decades. When the spill occurred in April 2010, we were already working on large-scale conservation projects in the Gulf. We were planning and implementing restoration and protection projects that would impact dozens of acres of coastal lands and miles of shoreline. Despite the spill, we’ve continued these projects with great success, and yet, the enormity of the spill and its aftermath has spurred us to broaden our approach across the five-state coastal region.
Our efforts include prioritizing areas for restoration and conservation, completing some of the world’s largest oyster restoration projects, and developing coastal restoration and planning tools to help decision makers identify areas vulnerable to coastal hazards.
We are also taking a watershed-based approach to conserving the Gulf. In Mississippi, for example, the Conservancy is working with partners to explore ways to restore nine coastal streams altered by decades of degradation. These streams flow into the Mississippi Sound, which is known for its productive marshes and bird habitat.
As a conservationist, what challenges have you faced in the past four years?
One of the challenges of working on a whole system like the Gulf of Mexico is to learn the ins-and-outs of all five states. They each have different personalities, different goals, and different ways they are planning to spend the oil spill fines. Fortunately, Conservancy staff in each of these states are adept at knowing the intricacies of their own states and also working together as a regional team to develop a cohesive plan that advances conservation throughout the region.
What challenges lie ahead?
We only have one Gulf of Mexico, and we only have one chance to make a positive impact on our natural resources here. There are many competing interests in the Gulf, and they stem from the leaders and stakeholders wanting to do what’s best for their city, town and county. Wildlife, however, doesn’t abide by geopolitical boundaries. Oyster reefs in Texas, for example, may help to feed fish swimming through Alabama waters and birds migrating through Mississippi. What comes down the rivers from the landlocked parts of the country also affects the Gulf Coast. Realizing these connections isn’t new, but acting on that realization is the challenge.
You're not only a conservation scientist but you also live in the Gulf region. What changes have you noticed in the communities there?
Don’t tell anybody, but the Gulf Coast is an amazing place to live. The culture, the sense of community, the beautiful marshes and bright white beaches – it’s truly a coveted place to enjoy a great quality of life. In my community of Mobile, Alabama, I’m very lucky to have friends and colleagues that are passionate about the health of our environment. Many of my friends I’ve met through our volunteer restoration projects at Helen Wood Park and Pelican Point. People want to invest in their communities and have a stake in building a better future for themselves and their children. And that’s what these restoration projects are doing.
Why should people care about the Gulf of Mexico, even if they don't live in the region?
The Gulf of Mexico is an economic engine that contributes energy, food and tourism opportunities to people throughout the world. It’s the last area in the world that still has a significant oyster population, which provides 60 percent of the oysters consumed in the entire country. There are more fish and shellfish caught here than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England combined! Tourism and recreation provide over 600,000 jobs and $9 billion in wages annually. And, half of the nation’s domestic oil and gas is produced in the Gulf. The economy of the Gulf states combined would be the 7th largest in the world.
What can people do to help?
There are several ways that people can help. My favorite is to volunteer! There are dozens of cleanups and restoration projects every year along the Gulf. I’ve met some of my best friends at volunteer restoration projects. When people invest in their community – whether it’s donating time, money or sweat, a sense of community pride takes hold that will translate into a better quality of life and a brighter future for the next generation.