Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts to protect the Gulf’s globally significant natural systems. Read all his posts, and see fresh images from the oil spill like the one above in this slideshow from photographer Bridget Besaw.

We all want to throw up our hands and cry “What now?”

Kill this gusher — that’s the first order — do it as soon as possible, and prevent it from doing any more damage.

But the Gulf has swallowed this oil. It’s now deep into the system, so much a part of the Gulf we can no longer imagine siphoning it all out. Even if we shut down this well immediately, the catastrophe will continue.

We know that we’ll be losing harvests of precious Gulf fish, we’ll be losing many clean Gulf seafood nurseries and habitats, and many of us will see our livelihoods and the loveliness of Gulf life wrecked in the process.

But we are not helpless. What we do have control over now is how long we must suffer this loss.

If we do nothing to help nurse the Gulf back to health, we may never see it recover, even after decades. But if we act now to kick-start a recovery of life, we could end this decade with a Gulf that is richer, more productive, more beautiful than what we had before this catastrophe struck.

Every egg, every young fish, shrimp or crab, every adult that survives this spill will now be precious. These will by the two-by-two creatures that we’ll need to load onto the ark of recovery.

We must be vigilant: We can’t afford to lose any more of the Gulf’s creatures to carelessness, greed or neglect.

But if we’re going to see a rapid recovery of our Gulf, we need to do more: We need to ensure that the struggling creatures that survive this spill have a place to come home to — clean marshes, clean reefs, clean seagrass beds, clean shores to raise new generations of Gulf life.

Birds, fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, turtles will be desperate for places to come home to. For generations, we’ve been wrecking the habitats they need to reproduce, grow and thrive. Louisiana continues to lose 40 square miles of marsh a year. In Alabama’s once highly productive Mobile Bay, we appear to have lost 70 to 90 percent of the bay’s original oyster, marsh and seagrass habitat.

We must act quickly to protect the clean habitats that survive. But we can’t repair the damage done by this oil spill if we don’t act just as quickly to repair more than 100 years of damage done to Gulf Coast habitats, rebuilding our lost reefs, marshes and seagrass beds. These new, clean habitats will be critical to kick-starting a recovery.

We can’t recover all that was lost at once, but The Nature Conservancy is already identifying areas all along the Gulf Coast where we can rebuild significant areas of lost habitat within 3 to 5 years, in time to spark a revival of Gulf life.

Here in Alabama, the threats posed by this oil spill are driving a new appreciation of the importance of recovering lost habitat. We’ve been rebuilding our lost oyster reefs at the rate of about a mile a year. These reefs, the architectural foundation of much Gulf habitat, have already begun to support an explosion of seagrass, marsh, fish and shrimp. But at the rate we’re working now, it would take us a century to recover what was lost.

We can’t afford to wait. The damage done by this spill demands that we ramp up our efforts as rapidly as possible.

We know we could be building 20 to 30 miles of reef a year, and promote hundreds of acres of seagrass and marsh recovery in the process. Within 3 to 5 years, we could complete 100 miles of oyster reef and at least 1,000 acres of seagrass and marsh habitat. That’s conservative — it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that a properly designed restoration could support 10,000 acres of seagrass and marsh.

Rebuilding such a system will have huge benefits beyond kick-starting the oil spill recovery:

  • If designed properly, oyster reefs will slow, and in many cases, halt the massive erosion that continues to carve into Alabama shorelines.
  • Reefs will help to filter the loose sediment that turns Mobile Bay a dark chocolate every time the wind blows.
  • Light-loving seagrasses return, tying down still more mud.
  • And in the quit eddies created by the reef, marshes will get a toe-hold and spread rapidly.

Best of all, re-creation of these reefs, seagrasses and marshes will result in an explosion of life. It won’t just be old timers who remember what it was like to go floundering in the seagrasses along the shores of Mobile Bay:

  • Harvest of white shrimp, once Mobile’s prized catch, will almost certainly rebound.
  • Crab habitat will increase dramatically.
  • Tens of thousands of young speckled trout, redfish, sheepshead and other Gulf game and food fish will once again find a place to grow and thrive.

None of this happens automatically. It’s a hugely ambitious plan that will require the support of many players. But it is precisely the kind of project that President Obama called for when he promised that this county would not only respond to the spill, but would develop a long-term plan for restoring the beauty and bounty of the region.

All of the Conservancy’s state programs are working on equally ambitious and concrete solutions, and the project in Mobile Bay is just one example among many that we’ll be highlighting in this space over the next several weeks.

One hundred miles of reef, 1,000 acres of marsh. Next time you’re feeling helpless because of the oil spill, wrap your hands around that thought and imagine the implications.

If we choose to think so heroically, we could be better off in 10 years than we are now, living with a healthier, more productive, more beautiful Gulf of Mexico.

(Image: Clouds of sediment colored the Gulf of Mexico on November 10, 2009, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this photo-like image. Image credit: NASA.)

Want to help? Explore three ways you can help Gulf restoration — sharing our stories from the Gulf, making a donation to long-term restoration efforts, or volunteering to help clean-up and restoration.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

Comments

  1. Oceans are were I grew up they said I had salt water in my veins , I live for night and day the water wispers secrets, nature always speaks to you if you are wise it tells you secrets inyour ear, you can hear it on a ripple or wave. By : Stephanie Leonard

    Imagine having your children not seeing the ocean the way it was?

    My name is Stephanie Leonard I’m blogger in Telegram Gazette, I feel like the ocean and mother earth is significant it’s beauty resonates from it’s very core of our being , the oceans and gulfs must be preserved . Especially before the wildlife and many of fish are gone and medicines are no longer received the ocean is full prosperous , imagine not being able to swim and rejuvenate in the oceans cold astute waters , that are filled with lush fish and plant live, not being able to go to beaches on hot summer day anymore ? We can’t let something so tranquil and pristine be ruined by people , we put so many species and plants endangered. BP is no longer taking people’s calls , that’s the saddest and riveting news that occurs to me because they are the ones I believe that are responsible and acceptance is the first step to progress. If we start helping others and use our talents this could a much better place and problems could be fixed if we work together , even if I don’t life in those areas , I’m asking how can I help? I want to people to spread a message of true peace and perspectiveness, I have many disabilties and illnesses but I wish to help somehow let me know how can be of any guidance?

    Sincerely ,Stephanie Leonard

  2. i wonder how many people realize just how fragile the earth’s oceans are and what they truly mean to us. Some years ago, I read an article about oxygen generation and consumption measured on a continental level. The writer said 70% of North America’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the oceans surrounding the continent. If we destroy the ocean’s means of sustaining life from the oyster larva to the blue whale, we will return the earth to the anaerobic world it was before those wonderful bacteria began chewing up organic matter and excreting O2. Then, what will be breath?

    Regarding the Gulf oil catastrophe, President Obama in his address from the Oval Office said, America has 2 percent of the world’s oil reserves, yet we consume more than 20%. We could … and I mean this seriously … stop drilling everywhere, forever, and it would hardly make a blip in the volume of crude in global markets. Wouldn’t it be a better choice to commit to eliminating oil from our energy equation altogether? Wouldn’t it be better to commit to serious conservation rather than all this hoopla about billions going to oil-producing countries that “hate” us? What is the most practical solution: “Drill, baby, drill!” or conserve, conserve, conserve?

  3. The flaw in the contemporary intellect, as do you blogster, accepts all restoration as possible and of course, only after the fact of loss. Rehabilitation is the pragmatic, practiced and small effort of “re”-cuperation. Regardless of the hope-filled romantics in the world, one can never repeat the past (apologies to Scott Fitzgerald). Salt soon turns to oil in your coastal veins, and that, unresolvable.

  4. oh my gosh.. is that the oil that spill in the ocean? somebody should do something to recover it right away

  5. Can anybody raise a wake up call to the sleeping political giants. Is this the earth we are going to gift to our very own children. No…… Please help…. shake up every body out there… horrible..

  6. I would like to think this terrible disaster could turn into an incredible wake-up call for everyone when they start their car to go to work, or for a short run to the store. How many times do we take for granted this fossil fuel. How many people really know the true cost of those gallons of gas we pour into our cars. I can guarantee you, if everyone knew what the true cost was, we might rethink how we abuse it.

    Many feel overwhelmed by this tragedy and think, what can one person do to make a difference? To that I quote Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. We, as individuals must rethink what we are doing, and what condition we want to leave to the next generation. The passion to be the change must start from within each of us. And no, it is never to late to start.

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