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Ask the Conservationist

December 2011: How Is the Gulf of Mexico Doing?

Would you eat oysters from the Gulf of Mexico? Are restaurants even serving up Gulf seafood?

A meal out in New Orleans highlights why there’s still a lot of work to be done to restore Gulf ecosystems and the livelihoods that depend on them. Get the latest on the Gulf—including news of a recently released report outlining three key strategies for restoring the Gulf—from one of our senior scientists.

And don’t forget to send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's 550 staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)

Josephine Becker, of Amherst, MA, asks:

We don’t hear about the Gulf of Mexico in the news as much anymore. How is the Gulf doing now, and what will its future be? How are groups like The Nature Conservancy helping restore the Gulf?

Jon Hoekstra, senior scientist with The Nature Conservancy, replies:

Is the story of the Gulf oil spill over? Not by a long shot. Does the Gulf—one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth—still need your help? As a scientist and someone who cares about the region, I can say: Absolutely.

Last April, just before the one-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, I traveled to New Orleans to serve on an expert panel charged with identifying science-based priorities for long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico. The panel was filled with oceanographers, ecologists, marine engineers, fisheries biologists, sociologists, biogeochemists and more—all brought together to review the science, debate the implications for restoring the Gulf, and write a comprehensive report that has been recently released by the Pew Environment Group.

However, I gained the clearest insight into what still needs to be done—and why—when I went out for dinner at one of New Orleans many oyster houses. I was meeting Cindy Brown, The Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico program director and a New Orleans native.

I ordered oysters, anticipating a platter of Louisiana's finest, only to learn that the oysters had actually been brought in from Texas. Then Cindy ordered chicken. As much as she loved Louisiana seafood, she said, she wasn't going to eat it on a regular basis until she could be more confident that there weren't any lingering health risks from the oil spill.

I realized then and there that long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico was about far more than just cleaning up the oil. It also had to be about rebuilding the oyster, shrimp and other Gulf fisheries, and about restoring people's confidence that they could once again count on the Gulf to provide safe food, good jobs and other benefits of nature.

My fellow Gulf experts agree. Our report lays out three overarching priorities for restoring the Gulf of Mexico:
1) Assess and repair damage from the Deepwater Horizon spill and other stresses on the Gulf;
2) Protect existing habitats and populations; and
3) Integrate sustainable human use with ecological processes in the Gulf of Mexico.

For #1, while much of the immediate and visible damage of the spill was addressed through the massive spill and clean-up responses mobilized in 2010, states affected by the spill are now assessing the less immediate and less visible impacts on fish, wildlife, and natural habitats as part of the Natural Resources Damages Assessment process. These assessments will determine damages to be paid as compensation for the spill.

For #2, we need to shore up the vital habitats that make the Gulf of Mexico so productive for fisheries and so appealing for tourism and recreation. Protecting the Gulf's most important oyster reefs, marshes, estuaries, sea grasses, and other productive habitats will nurture the next generation of fish, shrimp and crab that are born and grow up there. Similarly, protecting the Gulf's marshes, bays and beaches preserves the abundant wildlife and scenic beauty that epitomizes the Gulf Coast. Even before the spill, The Nature Conservancy was working with other conservation organizations and government agencies to protect and restore the Gulf's most important places. Now, that work takes on even greater importance.

#3 is the most important priority for long-term restoration of the Gulf. People rely on the Gulf of Mexico for food, jobs, and protection from storms. They identify with the Gulf as a part of their daily lives, as part of their sense of place. The spill damaged that deep connection between people and nature—as evidenced by Cindy’s choice of dinner entree. Repairing that damage will take a long time, but it is absolutely essential. A restoration economy offers a pathway back along which jobs and economic recovery go hand-in-hand with environmental restoration.

Now, one-and-a-half years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, British Petroleum has received approval to drill a new deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico. As oil and gas production returns to business as usual, it's important to keep in mind how the rest of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem still needs help.

That’s where you can come in. First, next time you sit down to enjoy a meal of fresh seafood, think about how important it is that it comes from a clean and healthy ocean—because awareness is the first step to action. Second, voice your support for conservation and for long-term restoration of the Gulf of Mexico. And third, read the report “A Once and Future Gulf of Mexico” and learn more about actions that can restore this vital ecosystem.

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