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I traveled to Louisiana yesterday to begin the painful task of assessing how the oil spill will hit the coastal and marine areas the Conservancy has worked for years to protect. 

As I flew over the Gulf waters in a five-seater plane with the Conservancy’s Louisiana state director Keith Ouchley, our lead scientist Sanjayan and Brian McPeek, who heads our North America conservation team, I was overwhelmed by the size of the spill we saw below us — and the knowledge of the damage it will bring in the coming days.

We flew over North Island, one of the Chandeleur barrier islands that lie about 70 miles away from “ground zero,” where an oil rig leased by BP exploded last month killing 11 workers and creating the spill that is now spreading across the Gulf.

Massive orange ribbons of oil snaked around the island, penetrating every nook of grassland and marsh. A wooden shack that weeks before provided fishermen a resting place nearby the island now sat in a field of brown muck.

Not far from the island, where the oil had not yet reached, two dolphins swam unaware, heading straight toward the slick.

We soon came across a flotilla of 30 shrimp boats racing full speed into the spreading oil. With a moratorium on fishing in the region, these boat captains were now deployed to help with clean up efforts, trying to scoop up oil from the waters that provide them their livelihoods.

While the small boats looked powerless against the slick that now stretches hundreds of miles wide, the passion and dedication these local fishermen showed toward saving the Gulf and its resources gave me a glimmer of hope.

I felt that same hope later in the day when we traveled to Alabama to meet Conservancy Alabama State Director Chris Oberholster to see an oyster reef restoration project the Conservancy is conducting along the coast of Coffee Island.

Partnering with Dauphin Island Sea Lab, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Nature Conservancy staff are helping build a “living shoreline” along the eastern side of the island where erosion has eaten away at the coast.

Collecting tens of thousands of shucked oyster shells, staff have create giant “reef balls” – each about the size of a bath tub – dropping them in the coastal water where oyster colonies will grow and ultimately create a natural sea wall that will protect against surf and further erosion. As the oysters grow, and their shells fall to the ocean floor, they will also create the material needed to rebuild the shore and create breeding grounds of fish.

Projects like these can help rebuild the Gulf of Mexico, which has faced numerous threats from overdevelopment even before the devastating oil spill.

In an effort to protect the oyster reefs from the spill, Conservancy staff have circled Coffee Island with booms to divert the oil. We won’t know for several days, however, whether these booms will keep the oil from destroying the restoration that is now underway.

But just like the shrimp boat captains who charged into the slick, the Conservancy staff showed hope: Hope that they would be able to save Coffee Island and hope that they would be able to do even more in the future to restore the Gulf Coast.

I felt incredibly proud to be part of this dedicated team. And I also felt hope that this disaster would be a wake-up call, prompting citizens, businesses and our elected officials to do more to protect the Gulf and other natural treasures across the country.

The spill clearly demonstrates the need to enact energy and climate policy that will spark a new clean energy industry in the United States and move us away from our dependence on oil.

To achieve such a goal, we must work together across diverse sectors to reach agreement on policy language that can be passed by Congress and signed into law.

The Nature Conservancy has engaged with a wide variety of stakeholders – including oil companies – in order to find solutions that can both meet the needs of our communities and nature.

The oil industry is a major player in the Gulf. It would be naïve to ignore them. Anyone serious about doing conservation in this region must engage these companies, so they are not just part of the problem but so they can be part of the effort to restore this incredible ecosystem.

By working together, policy can be enacted that bolsters clean energy and establishes safety measures that can prevent catastrophes like this in the future.

As a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) coalition of energy companies, manufacturers and environmental groups, the Conservancy is working to develop effective national energy and climate policy that can keep our communities and natural resources strong and productive.

Such efforts, combined with innovative conservation work — including the oyster restoration project in Alabama — gives me hope that we can emerge from this catastrophe and help nature restore itself in the Gulf.

Text by Mark TercekCool Green Science Blog