By Alisha A. Renfro, Ph.D., National Wildlife Federation
Last summer’s BP oil disaster was the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The assessment of the damage to the Gulf of Mexico from the oil—as well as the dispersants that were used in the clean-up effort—is still underway. A new report released last month by the Pew Environment Group titled “A Once and Future Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem” looks to the future of recovery from this tragic event. For the report, Pew brought together 18 prominent scientists and experts to identify the challenges to this essential ecosystem’s recovery and to identify specific actions, strategies and recommendations that will create the best path forward towards a healthy and productive Gulf.
While the BP oil disaster was a major tragedy, it was only the latest stressor to the health and function of the Gulf of Mexico over the years. Other causes of stress include hurricanes, overfishing, overharvesting, pollution from industry and agricultural runoff, rising sea level, real estate development and alteration of natural terrain and river processes. As a result of this combination of factors, the researchers in this report recommend focusing efforts on sustainable restoration that will take into consideration the historic conditions and account for future ecosystem dynamics and interactions, while prioritizing areas that provide a rich habitat for the fish, wildlife and people of the Gulf.
This type of restoration strategy may require that habitat not heavily or directly impacted by the oil spill take precedence over more damaged areas, if it serves a greater variety of injured species or is an important wildlife corridor between other habitat types. In order to make this method of restoration successful and sustainable in the face of long-term changes (e.g. sea-level rise), it is necessary to understand the physical structure of the habitat, its function, the various services it provides and to carefully integrate any ecological engineering components of the project into the surrounding, natural landscape.
The report also recommends recognition and reduction of other stressors on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem, such as modifying agriculture practices in the Mississippi River watershed that introduce high concentrations of nutrients into the Gulf and contribute to the Dead Zone, reducing the amount of debris in the river that can cause fish and wildlife casualties and restoring water flow to riparian wetlands as a tool to enhance ecosystem function of small rivers and reduce nutrient loads delivered to the Gulf.
Finally, the report also recognizes the importance of the participation and knowledge of the people who make the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico their home. Their collective knowledge can help scientists understand the previous distribution of habitat and species and help prioritize areas in greatest need of restoration. In order to begin recovery from this tragic event and to move forward towards a healthy and productive future, restoration of key habitats is vital for the fish, wildlife and people that depend on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem for survival.