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Gulf Animals Don’t Stop at State Lines—and Neither Does Restoration

cleaning gannet
© U.S. Coast Guard / Petty Officer 3rd Class Colin White

Restoring an ecosystem the size of the Gulf of Mexico is not an easy task. Therefore it’s necessary to have a good plan and even multiple plans for how to be successful in this endeavor. The latest addition to these plans is a series of strategic frameworks released last week by the Region-wide Trustees as part of the natural resource damage assessment process. These documents are a tool to coordinate restoration efforts across state lines, and for animals that move around, into and out of the Gulf, this type of planning is a necessity. Ocean Conservancy asked for these regional planning frameworks when the BP settlement was reached in 2015, and we are happy to see the Trustees complete their first round of frameworks for sea turtles, birds, marine mammals and oysters.

Restoring any species is incredibly challenging when you consider all of the factors that can influence their recovery. For example, imagine planning how to restore the population of a bird like the northern gannet, a beautiful seabird that nests in New England in the summer and spends its winters in the Gulf. Gannets are amazing divers, plunging up to 70 feet underwater to catch fish. But during the oil disaster, gannets were exposed to oil in contaminated nearshore waters, and it’s estimated that at least 4,500 birds died as a result. Now, think of some things that could affect the gannet in both places: whether they have access to freshwater, a place to nest, plenty of food, or whether they’re exposed to stressors like human development, harmful algal blooms or poor water quality. The complexity and scale of restoring these and other species is exactly why restoration needs to be viewed and planned as a whole ecosystem endeavor.

Trying to restore a species that travels across regions without looking outside of one state’s borders could mean overlooking a big factor in their lives. The strategic frameworks are one step toward coordinating restoration across the ecosystem and, as the Trustees put it, tools to “consider resources at an ecosystem level, while implementing restoration at a local level.” Ocean Conservancy will soon release an example of how to implement the strategic frameworks for sea turtles, which could be a model for other wide-ranging species.

The effort currently underway to restore the Gulf is huge—more than $20 billion is available for the next 15 years to restore hundreds of species across five states and federal waters—and the opportunities for collaboration are endless. We hope that these strategic frameworks are the first of many and that the Trustees will update the frameworks every few years as new scientific information and restoration progress is developed. There is tremendous potential to take the frameworks a step further and identify specific research needs, key uncertainties, conceptual models or shared recovery goals for resources that individual states can consider in their planning efforts. Ocean Conservancy has long been a champion and supporter of restoring the Gulf ecosystem as whole. We thank the Region-wide Trustees for their work on these frameworks and encourage them to look for opportunities to go even further in the next version.

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