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Ask the Conservationist

July 2010: Hope for the Gulf

It's been almost 3 months since a horrific explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 people and created the largest oil spill in United States history.

As oil washes on the shores of Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, one can't help but wonder: is there any hope for the future of our Gulf States?

In this month's Ask the Conservationist column, we share how one optimistic state — Texas — can lead the way in restoring the Gulf of Mexico.

When you're done reading, send us your questions on any conservation subject for one of the Conservancy's hundreds of staff scientists. (Note: We regret that we can only answer one or two questions each month and that we cannot answer the others offline.)

Concerned citizen:

Is there any hope for the future of our Gulf States?

Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy's State Director in Texas, explains Texas' marine restoration projects:

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.

This is a big deal. 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.

Which all makes the situation in the Gulf sound very grim. But there is hope.

Texas coastal waters, currently unaffected by the oil spill, can serve as 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 Conservancy has many successful coastal restoration projects already underway in Texas:

1. In Copano and Matagorda bays, our two-year-old oyster reef restoration projects are being colonized by living oysters, creating self-sustaining reefs.

2. 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.

3. 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 salt marshes 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.

At the same time, there could be potentially significant increase in pressure on Texas fisheries with so much of the Gulf closed for fishing. 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.

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.


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