Taking the Pulse of the Gulf

Today Ocean Conservancy released a new report, Charting the Gulf: Analyzing the Gaps in Long-term Monitoring. As one of the authors of this report, I’ve had the privilege of collecting information and meeting with scientists from around the Gulf to compile a comprehensive view of their work, and it’s my hope that this will make the jobs of those scientists and other Gulf leaders much easier by providing a map of existing information for restoring the Gulf.

When the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began in 2010, Ocean Conservancy recognized it was difficult to track the damage to our wildlife and wild places, because we lacked the baseline information to understand what a healthy Gulf looked like. From the biggest sperm whale to microscopic plankton, we have had a limited understanding of the patterns of marine life driving the Gulf ecosystem. Our new report highlights that missing information and outlines possible first steps in filling those gaps in our knowledge.

After compiling an inventory of nearly 700 monitoring efforts around the Gulf, we found some significant holes in the current system for tracking the status and trends of ecosystem health and integrity. First, the Gulf’s wildlife and habitats in the offshore environment are not monitored to the same degree as those in more coastal areas. And although we have a continuous forty-year record of satellite imagery available to track our changing shorelines, we have very limited data to understand the reasons why they are changing.

The most significant realization I experienced while creating this report was how little we currently invest in examining the health and vitality of the Gulf. The maps and timelines in our report outline the extensive monitoring that scientists do all around the Gulf and over many years, but in reality, across the 600,000 square miles of U.S. waters in the Gulf, there is little activity tracking trends in marine life. For example, a dot on a map like the one above may give the impression that we have a complete understanding of plankton at that location, but it may only represent a single net towed behind a boat for 30 minutes over the course of four months. That leaves a lot of time and area not surveyed for plankton, which are an important food source for the Gulf’s marine life. It’s crucial that we sustain a systematic approach to fill these gaps in our knowledge.

For successful restoration in the Gulf, we must invest a portion of the $26 billion available through settlements with BP and Transocean in long-term monitoring of this ecosystem that we rely on for our way of life. Just like a doctor needs a patient’s history to effectively prescribe treatment for an illness, we need a complete picture of the health of the Gulf of Mexico in order to restore this special place. If we take advantage of this opportunity now, we can better prepare to respond to future events like climate change and make more informed decisions about how we live with the Gulf. This report represents the positive direction we are heading in the Gulf, to enhance the network of science and data needed to understand this ecosystem that we depend on for work, fun and our way of life.

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