Going Deep for Gulf Restoration

The long-awaited ocean restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico is released

Today is a day of celebration for the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly 10 years after the BP oil disaster, the federal government took its most significant step yet toward healing deep-sea habitats and marine wildlife harmed by the worst marine oil spill in history. With the release of the final Open Ocean Trustee restoration plan a total of $226 million will be spent on 18 projects aimed at the recovery of some of the Gulf’s most iconic and threatened marine species. Restoration of sea turtles, fish, marine mammals and deep-sea corals is the plan’s focus.

Led by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with the cooperation of the Department of Interior and other federal agencies under the Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group, the plan is as historically significant as it is pioneering and bold, containing projects that greatly expand the oil spill restoration toolkit for ocean resources. Ocean Conservancy advocated strongly for the plan, and more than 70,000 of our activists expressed their support for the projects.

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon mobile drilling platform suffered a catastrophic blowout, resulting in the tragic deaths of 11 people and pumping 210 million gallons of oil into the deep, offshore and surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. Ground zero was some 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana at a depth of 5,000 feet, oiling shorelines from Texas to Florida, closing fisheries and injuring a wide swath of marine species and habitats. Among the ocean casualties were as many as 167,000 adult and juvenile sea turtles, trillions of larval fish, the endangered Bryde’s whale and centuries-old corals.

Unlike coastal environments where physical on-site restoration is possible, the deep ocean’s relative inaccessibility and the wandering nature of marine life such as fish and marine mammals pose a logistical and technical challenge for restoration officials. In response, NOAA is taking a novel approach to restoration by better understanding and reducing ongoing threats to marine species and seafloor communities. What is also important is the plan does not contain a single new regulation. The agency is enlisting the cooperation of the fishing community to test new technologies or fishing practices intended to reduce bycatch of species injured by the disaster such as Bluefin tuna, sea turtles and red snapper.

For example, NOAA will partner with recreational fishermen to improve the survival of red snapper that are incidentally caught and released back into the sea. Like the bends in divers, fish reeled up to the surface suffer from the results of barotrauma. This causes bloating which greatly reduces their odds of survival when returned to the sea. Post-release mortality results in numerous red snapper deaths each year. The agency will study the effectiveness of descender devices used to deliver red snapper back to the seafloor. If effective and used properly, this technology could help the red snapper population rebuild and potentially boost fishing opportunities.

Other projects will map and monitor deep-water corals, develop more effective sea turtle excluder devices, work with the bottom longline fleet to reduce deadly fisheries interactions with Bluefin tuna and catalog threats (e.g., vessel strikes, manmade noise) to the recovery of marine mammals.

Since 2010, Ocean Conservancy has been a steady voice advocating for the restoration of the Gulf’s marine environment with BP oil spill fines and settlement monies. Today, we see our efforts come to fruition with the open ocean restoration plan.

NOAA and the other Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group members have raised the bar for marine restoration in the Gulf and more broadly as other countries grappling with future offshore oil spills look to the Gulf for inspiration. Today, we raise our glasses to the Open Ocean Trustees, to Ocean Conservancy’s activists and to the future health of the Gulf!

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