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Some good news is finally emerging from the Gulf of Mexico. The leak that spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil finally appears to be plugged. 

The Nature Conservancy is now getting back in the water and back to work conserving the Gulf and its resources. But we — as a nation — cannot return to business as usual.

Success in the Gulf will require much more than just cleaning up the oil that has seeped into marshes, wetlands and estuaries. We must also address the neglect and damage that has threatened the region for decades.

The work may sound daunting, but it can be done.

For 40 years, The Nature Conservancy has collaborated with communities, fishers, businesses, conservationists, lawmakers and others to protect and restore the Gulf of Mexico. In the wake of the spill, we are now reaching out even more broadly, expanding our restoration plans and programs to help bring the Gulf truly back to health.

ReefBLK installations aloog Coffee Island

Jeff DeQuattro, NOAA-ARRA project manager in Mobile, Alabama, looks out over the ReefBLK installations aloog Coffee Island. (Photo: Beth Maynor Young/TNC)

Among the priority actions we are now pursuing are a series of demonstration projects to show the potential for large-scale restoration of oyster reefs and the multiple benefits they provide people and nature. A single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day — improving the Gulf’s water quality — and oyster reefs act as natural barriers between coastal communities and storm surges, and serve as vital nursery grounds for many commercial and other fish species. 

But oyster reefs are the most threatened marine habitat on Earth with 85 percent of the world’s oyster reefs gone due to pollution, dredging, overharvesting and loss of habitat.

The Gulf of Mexico, however, is a place where investments in oyster reef restoration can make a real difference.

In Louisiana and Alabama, the Conservancy is constructing interlocking rectangular cages made of welded steel and filled with mesh bags of recycled oyster shells collected by volunteers and staff. These structures are placed along the coast where they attract oyster larvae that rebuild degraded or destroyed reefs.

In Florida, the Conservancy is laying hundreds of mesh mats tied with oyster shells in shallow lagoon waters, creating a massive “welcome mat” that free floating larvae settle on and grow to produce the backbone of a healthy new reef.

The Mississippi Sound represents the entire Mississippi coastal area and its health is important to neighboring states and the wider Gulf as well. To help protect and restore this important resource, the Conservancy is expanding seagrass and oyster reef restoration projects in the Sound, as well as continuing investment in coastal land preservation.

In Texas, the Conservancy will soon begin creating three-foot high reef structures with barge-loads of loose rock that will attract oyster larvae to restore the historic Half Moon oyster reef.

In addition to expanding these and other on-the-ground actions, the Conservancy is bringing in top scientific experts who have worked on marine protection, biodiversity and climate change to develop new strategies to help the Gulf.

And we’re developing new technology to interactively combine social and ecological information to support decisions on Gulf-wide recovery and restoration and help decisionmakers understand where and how we can conduct restoration work.

To achieve all of this, we have launched the Fund for Gulf Coast Restoration, with an initial goal of raising $10 million. We’ve also developed a comprehensive Gulf restoration vision — the Gulf 20/20 report — to guide how that money will be invested.

We have seen a tremendous outpouring of support over the past few months from individuals and foundations, and we hope that the corporate sector will also contribute to this critical work in the Gulf.

Everyone who draws from the Gulf’s rich resources — especially those stakeholders who have contributed to its degradation — must play a part in its restoration. Everyone — from oil and gas companies to seafood businesses to shipping firms to the tourism industry to nonprofit organizations to government at all levels — must work together to restore and do what is needed to ensure this national treasure will survive for future generations.

The Gulf is arguably the nation’s greatest natural resource, a place where a healthy environment is clearly linked to healthy communities and a healthy economy. The Gulf’s waters supply us with more than 1.3 billion pounds of seafood — valued at $661 million — each year. Tourism and recreation around the Gulf generate more than 600,000 jobs with $9 billion in wages each year. Half of the nation’s domestic oil and gas is produced in the Gulf region.

BP has said it will fund the immediate clean up of the oil, but that will not be enough to reverse decades of decline.

In addition to private fundraising efforts, federal and state governments have an important role to play. The CLEAR Act, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, would provide long-term funding, safety and action needed to ensure the health and resilience of the Gulf. It is imperative that the Senate follow suit and pass similar legislation this fall.

The tragedy of the oil spill placed a spotlight on the Gulf and sparked international concern for its wildlife, natural systems and people. Now that the leak is capped, we cannot once again turn our backs to the ongoing threats that are slowly destroying the Gulf.

We must all join forces and get back to work in the Gulf. But for all of us who rely on the Gulf and the vast resources it provides our nation, we cannot return to business as usual.

Text by Mark Tercek, Cool Green Science Blog

Bringing the Gulf back to full health
How can we take restoration in the Gulf beyond a "business-as-usual" approach? The Conservancy’s president and CEO Mark Tercek explains.