By Laura Huffman
State Director, The Nature Conservancy of Texas
It's been more than six weeks since a horrific explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and created the largest oil spill in United States history. In light of the tragic loss of human life and the devastating ecological implications of this epic disaster, World Oceans Day on June 8 – created by the United Nations to honor oceans and celebrate the vast array of life they support – has the distinctly somber feel of an elegy for the bountiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas coastal waters currently remain unaffected by the oil spill. With our gulf neighbors in distress and their shorelines and waters compromised, Texas is in a vital leadership position. Our coastal waters stand to become a “marine bank” for the rest of the gulf, providing for long-term, large-scale restoration of critical marine systems such as oyster reefs, wetlands and seagrass beds.
The gulf was in peril even before the Deepwater Horizon spill. Last year, The Nature Conservancy released “Shellfish Reefs at Risk,” a global report which revealed that more than 85 percent of Earth’s oyster reefs have vanished or been destroyed, and over 50 percent of oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico have been lost.
Why do we care? The importance of oyster reefs can't be overstated – particularly now along the Gulf Coast. Because of their natural filtering abilities, oysters are critical to maintaining and improving water quality. The average oyster filters 40-60 gallons of water a day, making each living oyster an integral part of the ocean's water treatment system. Oyster reefs also provide crucial habitat for other aquatic species, including shellfish. And, of course, they are a prized food source that contributes to commercial fisheries and supports our chain of hard-working coastal communities that depend on a healthy gulf to earn a living.
At the same time, we need to carefully gauge the potentially significant increase in pressure on Texas fisheries. With so much of the gulf closed for fishing, Texas fisheries could easily become exhausted. If managed properly, Texas’ healthy coastal nurseries can help fill the void created by fishing bans, which now cover nearly 62,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico. We will need to strike a balance between making up for lost production and maintaining the delicate balance of health within our own waters.
The good news is that much of this critical balancing act has already begun. In Copano and Matagorda bays, The Nature Conservancy’s two-year-old oyster reef restoration projects are being colonized by living oysters, creating self-sustaining reefs. A seagrass protection project along the coastal bend, launched by the Conservancy with partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and local coastal conservation organizations, is nearing its fourth year helping protect the underwater beds and meadows that comprise the foundation of the gulf’s delicate ecological structure. This month, the Conservancy and partners will begin an ambitious shoreline restoration project at two preserves to build more than 8,100 feet of rock breakwater that will create emergent saltmarshes and help protect sensitive coastal habitat from hurricanes and tropical storms. The lessons learned from these projects may well be the key to future Gulf Coast restoration efforts.
Clearly, these are distressing times for those who rely on and cherish the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The economic impacts of this disaster will take years to determine, and the loss of habitat and marine life is almost too immense to fathom.
That’s why it's vitally important for those of us in Texas to act now and lead the recovery plan. When the cleanup can do no more, long-term restoration, with science as a guide, will be the key to renewal.
Texas can lead the way in restoring the Gulf of Mexico. Its waters—and future generations—are counting on us.
This essay was published in the Houston Chronicle's opinion section on June 6, 2010.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.