Four years ago today, this image appeared on televisions around the world. And soon after that, we saw the 24-hour live feed of the well at the bottom of the Gulf, endlessly pouring gallon after gallon of oil into the water.
Almost immediately, the coastal impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster were easy to spot — oiled beaches, marshes, and pelicans. And now, four years later, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to restore the Gulf with the billions of dollars from BP. It’s easy to imagine how we would repair the coast — replant marsh grasses, rebuild barrier islands and restore oyster reefs.
Unfortunately, the damage that BP caused goes beyond what we can see from the seashore. We now know that dolphins in Louisiana are severely ill, deep-sea corals are covered in oil and BP oil can even give fish heart attacks.
But how do you restore the Gulf beyond the shore?
Invest in Habitat Mapping
Before tackling any big project, such as building a house or planning a neighborhood, the first order of business is to survey and catalog the site and its associated assets. Restoring the Gulf is no different.
The Gulf is home to an amazing and diverse suite of plants, animals and seafloor types. Detailed maps of how these elements work together are critical to understanding the complexities of their interactions. Together, the flora, fauna and topographies form a vibrant and diverse Gulf composed of unique neighborhoods — neighborhoods we have not yet charted or cataloged.
Understanding the Gulf’s seafloor, as well as the plant and animal habitats that are drawn to it, helps us more clearly assess and more effectively manage the Gulf’s various assets. From recreational and commercial fishing to energy production and wildlife-watching, these activities depend on our understanding of the Gulf’s seafloor communities.
Support the Marine Mammal Stranding Network
In any crisis, timing and training are key. If a four-alarm blaze engulfed your house, crews of well-orchestrated first responders would come from the surrounding communities to fight the fire, treat the injured and determine the cause. Response time is critical to success, and the advance training and equipment available to first responders can make all the difference in an emergency. If, on the other hand, you are a pilot whale beached in the shallows of the Everglades, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network is your crew of first responders, trained to respond, treat, and determine the cause of the emergency. Unfortunately, there is only one trained response group for every 1,200 miles of Gulf shoreline, and essential sources of funding for equipment, training, and forensics have been eliminated.
Sadly, this funding was cut just as the Gulf is experiencing escalations in the numbers of stranded and dead animals found on its shores. With these emergencies on the rise, increased support for the response effort will greatly increase the chances of survival for many of the dolphins and whales in the Gulf.
Develop Best Practices for Releasing Fish Offshore
Offshore anglers practicing catch-and-release fishing can see their well-intentioned efforts go to waste. Released fish bloated with expanding gasses often float on the ocean’s surface and struggle to return to the Gulf’s seafloor, leaving them vulnerable to predation and lethal physical stress. Some popular Gulf bottom-dwelling fish, such as snappers and groupers, commonly experience dramatic physical effects, known scientifically as barotrauma, when they are reeled in from the deep. These effects are similar to “the bends” that SCUBA divers experience, and are often fatal for fish. This does not have to be the case.
Barotrauma research on Gulf fishes is in its infancy, but there are promising signs that rapid descent of the fish in something as simple as a weighted milk crate can decrease mortality upon release. Understanding the science of what happens to released fish and developing best-release practices that minimize and reverse injury could help more fish survive and could also support the future of fishing in the Gulf.
If we are to fully recover from the BP disaster and effectively combat other decades-old problems, we must view restoration as a single package comprising integrated activities that restore marine waters, coastal watersheds, and the communities that depend on them. Without restoring all, we risk recovery that is incomplete and, ultimately, unsuccessful.