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Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014

The gift of the Gulf


By now most of us will have thanked our friends and relatives for the presents we received during the holiday season and made our resolutions to do good things in the new year.

But for the millions of people who live, work and recreate around the Gulf of Mexico, there is a thank-you that may well have been neglected and a resolution not yet made — we should be grateful for the many valuable gifts the Gulf provides to our communities and resolve to protect those values by supporting the restoration of the Gulf in the year to come.

Three years ago, after the huge Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it seemed that the people of the Gulf region and those from other parts of the country were ready to recognize the importance of the Gulf and ensure that not only the damage from the spill would be repaired, but that, at last, there would be concerted action to restore the health of the Gulf’s natural systems after 100 years of neglect.

Although progress is being made toward those goals, the outcome remains far from certain.

What’s at stake? What are the values that the Gulf of Mexico provides?

The Gulf is a rich and productive natural system that is second only to Alaska in commercial fish and shellfish landings. It is equally important for sport fishing with 23 million recreational trips a year.

The character of the Gulf’s shoreline sustains a tourism industry that supports 800,000 jobs throughout the region.

The Gulf’s natural features, barrier beaches, wetlands and oyster reefs help protect communities from wave action and storm surge caused by the Gulf’s frequent tropical storms.

The Gulf of Mexico is worth $234 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

There are also less tangible benefits.

Billions of birds migrate across and around the Gulf twice each year. Fish, turtles and marine mammals traverse the Gulf’s waters, which support more than 15,000 species of sea life. The Gulf region includes places of remarkable grace and beauty, inspiring its own unique culture and way of life.

What can be done to protect these values? The Gulf states and federal agencies should use the funding that may become available as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other ongoing sources of public and private money to:

Protect and restore clean freshwater flows into the Gulf. The health of the Gulf of Mexico depends upon the health of its estuaries which serve as nursery areas for most fish species, as places for outdoor recreation, and as the attractive settings for cities and towns. To restore these critical areas, we should address upriver pollution, re-establish wetlands and forests as natural water filters, and conserve water supplies to reduce excessive withdrawals.

Restore healthy shorelines. The wetlands, forests, and oyster reefs in the Gulf region provide critical fish and wildlife habitat and can serve as natural lines of defense to help reduce the impacts of storms on shoreline communities.

Ensure that people and communities benefit economically, ecologically and socially from Gulf restoration. Restoration produces and sustains jobs for local residents, supports existing industries such as tourism and fishing, and provides opportunities for new, innovative industries to emerge. A long-term investment in restoration should be coupled with programs to help the region’s workers and economy thrive.

Each Gulf state should complete clear public plans for use of the BP and other restoration funding as has been done for Louisiana’s coast. Restoration investments should be made in conformance with those plans, so that the best projects are selected based on their local impact and on their contribution to restoring the health of the Gulf as a whole.

As this holiday season comes to an end, we should recognize that the Gulf of Mexico is a gift of astonishing value to us — one that we should be as thankful for as anything else we may have received. And in this new year, we should, then, resolve to support restoration of the Gulf as something that will be valued and enjoyed by our children in all the new years to come.

Robert Bendick is director of the Gulf of Mexico Program for The Nature Conservancy. He previously served as The Nature Conservancy’s state director in Florida, Southern U.S. regional director and the director of U.S. Government Relations.