The New Gulf of Mexico Disaster Imperative: Scientific Baselines and Long-term Monitoring

Today, Ocean Conservancy introduces the first in a series of interviews with leading marine scientists whose research is helping to fill many critical and long-standing gaps in our knowledge about the Gulf of Mexico.

This blog series will highlight the need for scientific research and monitoring of the Gulf’s ecosystem. When the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began more than three years ago, we discovered precisely how little we understand about the potential impact of a major oil spill on the Gulf, especially on its already stressed marine life and fragile coastal ecology. The disaster’s lasting legacy is being shaped by our current response to this lack of basic knowledge.

Despite the billions of dollars worth of oil pumped out of the Gulf, and the billions more invested in the oil industry itself, there is virtually no corresponding investment in baseline science. The long-term impact of the oil industry on the Gulf ecology (which means looking beyond a five-year window) is not being monitored. Baseline science provides the status of the marine environment to which all future studies will be compared to determine trends in ecosystem integrity.

With these interviews, we aim to drive home the urgent need for more research, such as that being carried out by Dr. John Incardona. An ecotoxicologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Dr. Incardona has identified the chemicals in crude oil that cause deformed hearts in developing fish and hold the potential to devastate entire local populations of fish.

The blog series, which will include information on new research and insights into the lives of young Gulf sea turtles and migrating Northern gannets found in the Deepwater Horizon pollution zone, will also underscore the benefit of sustained, long-term ecosystem monitoring in the Gulf.

These interviews point to the tools and additional baseline research needed to meet the growing imperative to do more – much more – science in the Gulf.

We need to understand what we know and what we don’t know if we hope to better manage the marine environment. And we need to know this now.

The fines from BP and other responsible parties are now beginning to flow to the Gulf region. This money gives us a major opportunity to immediately invest in this missing science and to create the scientific monitoring programs that will enable local communities, state and federal regulators, and anyone who depends on the Gulf economy to join in more effectively managing and protecting this unique resource.

Establishing a scientific baseline for a healthy ecology in the Gulf is not only essential to recovery, it will also support and enhance our response to any future ecological threats and disasters.

Even in the absence of disaster, the return on our investment in a scientific baseline will be immense. We will know with greater certainty when the Gulf is merely surviving and when it is thriving.

More from This Blog Series:

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