As Senators consider bill on oil spill penalties, conservationists urge lawmakers to invest fines in Gulf’s natural systems and communities that need them
The groups delivered their recommendations to the Presidential Task Force on Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration, which President Obama created last October by executive order. The task force is facing a one-year deadline this October to develop a comprehensive strategy “to effectively address the damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, address the longstanding ecological decline, and begin moving toward a more resilient Gulf Coast ecosystem.”
The timing of the groups’ recommendations, entitled a Strategy for Restoring the Gulf of Mexico, is important. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to soon vote on legislation that would provide funding to implement the Presidential Task Force’s restoration plans. The Senate bill, the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act, would dedicate 80 percent of the oil spill fines to restoring the Gulf’s communities, economies and environments. Under current law, most of the fines will be used for general government spending, rather than being directed towards the Gulf.
The recommendations were submitted by The Nature Conservancy, the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies (Texas A&M) University-Corpus Christi, National Audubon Society, Ocean Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. The Presidential Task Force will unveil their final plan for Gulf restoration on Oct. 5.
“The Gulf is a national treasure and restoring it must be a national priority,” said Wes Tunnell of the Harte Research Institute. “Too much time has already passed. We cannot miss this important opportunity to rebuild the Gulf and ensure it continues to support our nation’s economy, communities and wildlife.”
Among the recommendations included in the blueprint are:
- Restoration activities should provide both environmental and social benefits.
- Ensure sufficient delivery of freshwater flows to the Gulf in order to maintain ecological health of bays and estuaries.
- Restore populations of endangered marine mammals, where their probability of extinction in the next 100 years is less than 1%.
- Construct and operate a series of large-scale diversions of freshwater and sediment from the Mississippi River sufficient to build and sustain Delta wetlands to provide storm surge protection for people and restore habitat for economically vital fisheries.
- Implement management plans for oyster reefs that support fish production, water filtration, nitrogen removal, coastal protection and other services that benefit both people and nature.
“If we really care about the Gulf and the communities that rely on it for survival, these fines must be used to restore the wetlands, marshes, oyster reefs, mangroves, fisheries and other natural resources that provide food, income and shelter to local communities – and the nation as a whole,” said Cindy Brown, The Nature Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program Director. “The Gulf suffered the brunt of the spill and the fines should be used to bring the Gulf back to health.”
“In order to successfully restore the Gulf, we must view the Gulf holistically — from the coast to marine waters — and focus on restoring the key services the ecosystem provides to coastal communities,” said Chris Dorsett, Ocean Conservancy’s Director of Fish Conservation & Gulf Restoration.
Even before the oil spill, the Gulf of Mexico faced serious threats from neglect, overdevelopment, pollution, storms, climate change and alteration of the Mississippi River Delta that feeds into the Gulf. Yet the Gulf still is one of the most productive natural areas in the world:
- The five Gulf states, if considered an individual country, would rank 7th in global Gross Domestic Product. (NOAA)
- The Gulf currently supports a $34 billion per year tourism industry (Oxford Economics), and its fisheries support more than $23 billion in seafood and commercial and recreational fishing-related activity (National Marine Fisheries Service).
- The Gulf produces roughly 40 percent of all the seafood in the lower 48 states (National Marine Fisheries Service).
- The region is home to 10 of our nation’s 15 largest ports by tonnage. More than 25 percent of the nation’s waterborne exports pass through Louisiana ports alone (American Association of Port Authorities).
“As terrible as it was, the oil spill focused the county’s attention on what this ecosystem contributes to our economy and what it means to our natural heritage. We must turn this awareness into a national commitment to restore and sustain this natural treasure,” said Susan Kaderka, Regional Director for the National Wildlife Federation.
The environmental groups that submitted the recommendations pledged to continue working with federal and state lawmakers to ensure action is taken immediately to ensure the Gulf’s productivity can be maintained and in many cases enhanced by bringing the region back to health.
“Although born of tragedy, there is a tremendous opportunity now for recovery of the Gulf. But we must think big,” said Chris Canfield, Vice President of Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway with the National Audubon Society. “We must look and work across political and organizational boundaries. We know how to restore the Mississippi River Delta, to bring back wetlands and barrier islands, to make a better home for birds, fish and our communities. All we need is the resolve to do it.”
“We hope our recommendations will help the task force develop its strategy, but the task force can’t implement its strategy without the necessary funding that the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act provides,” said Courtney Taylor, policy director for the Mississippi Delta Restoration project at Environmental Defense Fund. “That’s why Congress must hold the parties responsible for Gulf oil spill damage accountable by passing the RESTORE Gulf Coast States Act to ensure that we invest the oil spill penalties to restore the Gulf, or we risk losing this ecological and economic treasure.”