"The Gulf of Mexico is a place of hope in a part of the country that has endured more than its share of hard times."
New program director Bob Bendick kicks off our blog series, which will feature the latest doings in the Gulf as reported by our scientists and staff. View the whole series.
It was late in the day when my wife and I paddled our kayak around the end of a sandbar and into a sheltered cove on Atsena Otie Key just offshore from the village of Cedar Key on Florida’s Gulf coast. There were big schools of mullet in the cove, and the egrets standing on patches of marsh grass seemed to catch fish with little effort. A couple of ospreys soared overhead. I missed my cast to a redfish tailing in the shallows. Thunderstorms passed by out in the Gulf.
After five years as The Nature Conservancy’s Director of U.S. Government Relations in Washington, I have just returned to Florida and the South to become Director of TNC’s Gulf of Mexico Program. This was my first time back out on the water, and I couldn’t help but think about the contrast between this quiet place and the turmoil in national politics that I had left behind in the nation’s capitol.
But while Atsena Otie Key seemed beautiful and natural that afternoon, this small island and its surroundings reflect the long and sometimes difficult relationship of people to the Gulf of Mexico. Large shell mounds are evidence of long use of Atsena Otie by native Americans. The island was first settled by Europeans in the 1830s, but almost all of its structures were swept away in a hurricane in 1842. In 1868, a sawmill was built on the key which then came to employ many of its residents. But another massive storm in 1896 destroyed the mill and most of the island’s houses, and Atsena Otie was largely abandoned. It is now owned by the Suwanee River Water Management District and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge. Today people in the area live and work only in Cedar Key itself which is connected to the mainland by a small causeway across the marshes. Cedar Key’s economy depends almost entirely on tourism and on harvesting shellfish from productive Gulf waters that are nourished in part by freshwater flows from the nearby Suwannee River. And Cedar Key’s people are always looking over their shoulders at the potential for devastation from the next great Gulf storm.
Like so many communities around the Gulf of Mexico, the history of Atsena Otie and life in Cedar Key today embody three important characteristics:
- Communities have been and continue to be heavily dependent upon the natural resources of the Gulf region for their economic well-being—seafood, tourism, timber, marine transportation and, in the western Gulf, oil and gas
- The natural beauty and abundant fish and wildlife of the Gulf are part of the everyday lives of people who live close to the Gulf’s shores.
- Storms and the risk of storms have played a major role in the history of the Gulf of Mexico.
Not so evident at Cedar Key, however, is the extent to which the Gulf of Mexico has been degraded and changed in all those years of settlement and how those changes threaten the safety, economy and culture of the Gulf region. Alteration of the Gulf’s shoreline, particularly the loss of oyster reefs, marshes and barrier islands, increase the risk of storm damage as sea level continues to rise. Reduced and more polluted freshwater flows into the Gulf’s estuaries damage or destroy the productivity of the Gulf’s waters for fish and shellfish. Oil and gas exploration in increasingly deep waters, unless carefully managed, poses risks of more events like the Deepwater Horizon spill. Urbanization, sub-urbanization, and electronic entertainment, separate residents from regular use and appreciation of the Gulf and its natural features.
The Nature Conservancy has worked along the Gulf of Mexico region for more than 40 years to conserve its exceptional natural values, and so, following the regional wakeup call from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we committed ourselves to a far greater effort at this pivotal time for the Gulf’s history. it makes sense for us to increase our engagement by working with others to help repair past damage and reduce future risks in the Gulf. In doing this we have three major goals:
- To restore healthy shorelines
- To protect freshwater resources
- And to ensure participation of Gulf communities and people in the economic and cultural benefits of restoration activities
All of this is designed to make the Gulf and its human and natural communities more resilient to continuing change, to demonstrate that protecting and restoring natural systems and features have tangible benefits, and to bring a better appreciation, enjoyment and sense of connection to the Gulf to a broader range of the people who live along its shores.
With evening coming on, we paddled back to the launch ramp. A middle-aged couple was sitting on a bench next to where we were loading our gear into the car. “Catch anything”, the man asked? “No”, I replied”, but they’re out there”. “Yup, he said. We’re going out in a boat after those big reds tomorrow. I hope the weather stays good. We don’t get to do this much.” I thought, then, about the Gulf of Mexico being a place of hope in a part of the country that has endured more than its share of hard times. Hope for good fishing, for a decent job on the water, for an enjoyable family vacation at the shore. Hope that the next great storm won’t wash places that we love away. Recovery from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an opportunity to realize those hopes by investing in nature in the Gulf of Mexico for its long term benefits. It is a privilege to be back in the Gulf region to work with the Conservancy’s dedicated staff and so many partners to do just that.