Yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The comparisons between Katrina and the oil spill are clear—both affected the people and the nature of the Gulf Coast, and full recovery will take a commitment of resources for years and decades. Even with BP rightly footing the bill for oil spill cleanup, the country still faces a huge challenge to restore and protect the productivity of the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s useful to remember just how vital the Gulf is to the United States as a whole: Taken together, the 5 U.S. states bordering the Gulf have a gross domestic product of more than $2 trillion. Much of that is dependent on or related to the Gulf of Mexico and its coastal natural resources.
At the Conservancy, we’re focused on doing what we do best—working on the ground and in the water to restore and protect key habitats—to help the Gulf begin to recover as soon as possible.
The Gulf is not a new focus for us. We’ve worked along the coast from Texas to Florida for nearly 40 years, and since 2001, we have invested more than $9.4 million in restoring marine habitat here. That doesn’t take into account the tens of millions the Conservancy has invested in coastal forest restoration, as well as land acquisitions.
Recently our CEO Mark Tercek wrote a blog that outlined our Gulf 20/20 vision and the need for all willing partners to work together to restore the Gulf, including local communities, governments, the tourism and fishing industries, oil and gas, universities, NGOs and even people who have never set foot in the Gulf.
I’m heartened by the tremendous outpouring of help and support for the Conservancy’s initial $10 million fundraising goal for the Gulf.
Since early May, $3.5 million has been donated to our Fund for Gulf Coast Restoration, including nearly $750,000 from the CNN telethon for Gulf recovery, $350,000 from individual supporters and we just received a $2 million commitment from Chevron. All donations made to the Fund go directly to support the Conservancy’s long-term conservation and restoration efforts in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Across the Gulf, we are assessing the impact of the oil, and where we can, we’re getting back to our restoration work. In Florida, Mississippi and Texas, which seem to have been spared large-scale oiling, our conservation and restoration work continues. In Louisiana and Alabama, the states hit hard by the oil, we are working with our partners to develop and expand existing restoration projects to aid in the Gulf’s long-term restoration.
The week of September 21 we’ll be back in the water in Louisiana’s Vermilion Bay. Interrupted by the spill, this project—like all oyster reef restoration projects—will buffer the marsh from erosion and support clean nursery habitat that fish, crabs and shrimp will need to recover from the spill. The oysters themselves will ultimately help protect water quality by filtering about 1.7 million gallons of water every day.
In Alabama, we’ve recovered more than 300 feet of oiled boom and 12 bags of oiled debris at our project site on Coffee Island. We will restart our Alabama Recovery Act-funded project in early September, continuing the deployment of oyster reef breakwaters that began before the spill. Federal funds are allowing us to accelerate this work, part of Alabama’s plan to protect and restore more than 1,000 acres of coastal marsh by building 100 miles of oyster reefs. During the second week of October, we will begin expanding an oyster reef project as a first step that will, in the end, help protect more than 3 football fields worth of shoreline.
This isn’t glamorous work—anyone who has mucked around with oysters or worked long hours in a marsh can attest to that. But, like laying the foundation for a sturdy house, what it lacks in mass appeal it more than makes up for in significance. I am especially encouraged by the young oysters that have begun to populate the newly created reefs in Alabama funded through the Recovery Act awarded to the Conservancy through NOAA.
While I believe strongly in the resilience of nature and the value of restoration, I am not a starry-eyed optimist. I’m a scientist and a native of New Orleans with years of experience in the Gulf, and it is that experience that makes me both hopeful and cautious. Hopeful because I believe this could be our finest hour, our opportunity to rewrite the future of the Gulf, and cautious because I know that beyond the obvious needs, restoring the Gulf will require patience, partnerships and grace on a vast scale.
Stay tuned for updates. And thank you—as a Conservancy staffer and a resident of the Gulf Coast—for your ongoing help, support and concern.
(Image: The Conservancy’s Jeff DeQuattro (right) works on an oyster restoration project in Alabama. Source: Mark Godfrey/TNC.)