The Nature Conservancy logo. Protecting nature. Preserving life.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 that 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 be 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 a home. 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 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 three to five 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 three to five 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 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 country 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.

— Text by Bill FinchCool Green Science Blog

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