Momentum for restoration started with the BP spill and keeps building

Douglas Rader
In my previous post, I surveyed the damage to the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP oil spill. It’s serious, widespread and ongoing. The good news is that many dedicated people, at Environmental Defense Fund and elsewhere, are working hard to rebuild the Gulf, whose problems go well beyond those caused by the spill. Here is a quick overview of some of that work.

Once and future fish?

Perhaps the best news is that commercial fishermen and managers are working together to rebuild fish populations.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has been among the leaders in the United States in implementing high-performance fishery management programs, including catch shares. Catch shares give fishermen a direct incentive to help rebuild stocks, which makes their “share” of the scientifically set allowable catch more valuable.

  • In the Gulf, the emblematic red snapper has been in a commercial catch share program since 2007. And while it will take years to fully rebuild red snapper stocks, this fish is on its way back.
  • In 2010, 13 species of groupers and deepwater tilefishes joined the Gulf commercial catch shares program. There’s also talk of adding other hard-hit reef fish populations (vermilion snapper, greater amberjack and gray triggerfish, among others).
  • Gulf fishermen, under a program called GulfWild, are adding voluntary seafood testing to verify that their catch is free of lingering oil-based pollutants from the BP spill.

Improving recreational fishing programs and practices

One problem the catch share programs haven’t addressed is the Gulf’s poorly managed recreational fishing industry. Its red snapper harvest commonly exceeds set quotas by 45% to 100% or even more. This is unsustainable and needs to be fixed if the red snapper recovery is to continue.

Fortunately, there is progress to report on this front, too. This is especially important, since the Southeast region of the U.S. includes by far the largest number of recreational fishermen, as well as the most fish caught and landed by saltwater anglers. Many recreational fishermen care deeply about marine conservation – and their own fishing future – and are working on improved practices.

  • Efforts are underway to develop practices that will reduce mortality that results when bottom-dwelling reef fish are brought up too quickly.
  • A group of for-hire fishing operators have banded together and are working to create pilots for high-performance management of red snapper. Their ideas are currently under consideration by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
  • Florida’s Angler Action Program, is exploring the use of on-line and mobile applications to improve recreational fishing data collection. This data would feed directly into better stock assessments, better goal-setting and improved performance tracking for recreational fishing. A similar project is underway at Texas A&M’s Harte Research Institute, called “i-Snapper.”

Despite this progress, the political situation in the Gulf right now is volatile.  Recreational fishermen understandably wonder, with red snapper populations rebuilding, why this has not yet translated into improved fishing access.  There may well be important lessons to apply from big-game management – perhaps with state-level implementation – that could make a real difference.

Cuba and Mexico – hope for shared resources?

There may be light at the end of the tunnel for highly migratory species like sharks and tunas, which move among the territorial waters of various nations. The Gulf of Mexico has become a test bed for sharing shark science as a basis for improved management later.

The Gulf has the benefit of having only two small areas of “high seas,” where no nation holds sovereignty. All of the rest is in the exclusive control of the U.S., Mexico and Cuba. Thus, these three nations could create a pilot for cooperative management of shared waters, and of the species that range across territorial waters.

The hope is that, by managing migratory species cooperatively, the Gulf nations will be able to rebuild threatened populations of top predators. So far, it’s encouraging that scientists from these three countries, despite all the historical and political sensitivities involved, are talking to each other.

Wetland restoration and beyond

Finally, there is good reason to hope that billions of dollars in damage assessments from BP will go toward restoration for the Gulf Coast, including the Mississippi River Delta. This area is critical as a nursery ground for nearshore seafood species, and for a way of life.

Angelina Freeman, EDF Coastal Scientist, surveys oil on Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge

Yuki Kokubo

Restoring the Mississippi ecosystem, in the face of rising seas and intensifying storms, will not be easy. This huge undertaking will require redirecting sediment from the Mississippi so that it once again helps to build coastal wetland. So far, a tremendous amount of planning has been done, and some initial projects have been funded.

The Gulf today

Today, the Gulf of Mexico stands at a crossroads. The oil disaster was a body blow, and there are no guarantees that others will not follow. However, the spill also served as a wake-up call to everyone who cares about the Gulf, creating momentum for restoration that might not have existed otherwise.

As a result, there is now real hope that our grandchildren – and those of today’s Gulf communities – will be able to experience a Gulf that remains a vibrant, living system despite the worst disaster in U.S. marine history.