Restoring the Gulf Coast

Restoring the Gulf Coast

In a strange twist of fate, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history may end up saving the South's wetlands and coastlines--if we make the right choices.

By Scott Weidensaul
Published: November-December 2013

"At a nickel a dollar, if they got $5 billion, we'd have about $250 million--and if we're talking about marshes and coastal forests, you could buy a tremendous amount of land for that money," Raines said. "I think we could be talking hundreds of thousands of acres in each state. And the only way we're going to insure we have those places going forward is to buy and protect them." If the settlement ends up approaching the $21 billion high end, the total available for coastal marshes could be more than $1 billion.

 

Although the main RESTORE Act funds are still well off in the future, the council overseeing them will, in the coming months, be setting its priorities for how to spend the funds. One of the trust fund's mandates, "economic" restoration, worries many conservation experts, who wonder if more hotels and baseball stadiums are in the offing.

But a different sort of economics is playing out in the Gulf. Waterbird, seabird, and shorebird populations are both living indicators of the region's health and important magnets for wildlife-hungry tourists, which is why Audubon is banking heavily on restoration programs that benefit birds, Wraithmell and other Audubon experts said. Money invested in revitalized Gulf habitat pays enormous dividends for local communities. In Florida, for example, two proposed projects would use $2.5 million to rein in erosion on islands in Tampa and Hillsborough bays that support immense colonies of wading birds.

"We're talking massive, massive, massive waterbird rookeries that have been there for decades--18 species, and tens of thousands of pairs of brown pelicans, roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, white ibis, American oystercatchers, and the list goes on and on," Wraithmell said. "Those islands, they're like the hub on a wheel--you see the birds coming and going from them all day. The reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills that you see throughout the Tampa Bay area, and which are very desirable targets for wildlife viewers, are raised up on those islands."

I've spent many happy hours watching and photographing waders from those very colonies, and I'm hardly alone; the Florida Gulf Coast has always attracted a lot of birders. Still, I was shocked when Erin Duggan of the Visit Sarasota County tourism bureau told me her county gets more economic impact from tourists interested in wildlife viewing than from those wielding nine irons and putters--even with more than 70 golf courses within 15 miles of the city. Nor does Sarasota County include hunting and fishing in that total, she said, though these lucrative pastimes also depend on healthy, robust ecosystems, which makes the overall impact of nature tourism even greater.

Keith D. Overton agrees that investments in the Gulf 's ecological health, like those the spill settlements will make possible, are a critical investment in the region's economy. What makes Overton's opinion so persuasive is that, like Duggan, he's speaking as someone sitting firmly on the equation's business side.

Overton, president of the high-end TradeWinds Resort near St. Petersburg, Florida, is the former chair of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association's board, and he's the first to admit he's not a birder. But, he notes, "every person who comes to Florida has a list of multiple things that they want to do, and almost always, something to do with the wildlife is on that list. For more than a hundred years, Florida's brand was built on blue skies, warm sunshine, pure white-sand beaches, and the incredible wildlife. Florida's reputation is still built on its natural resources. I worry at times that we haven't been reinvesting into that enough."

 

The last big oil spill happened in 1989, when the Exxon Valdez went aground in Alaska, and for one conservationist with a unique perspective on the issue, there's a growing fear that in the Gulf we're not applying the lessons learned from that previous disaster.

Stan Senner, a former director of Audubon Alaska and now with the Ocean Conservancy, served seven years as Alaska's chief restoration planner and science coordinator following that catastrophe. In that case, the state and the federal government set aside their differences and agreed to jointly carry out all aspects of restoration. They also agreed to use about 20 percent of all the restoration money--almost $158 million--for science and monitoring, based on an exhaustively vetted plan for ecological restoration.

"Those investments in science are still paying off today," Senner said. "If the Exxon Valdez trustees had not funded a substantial, extended science program, we would not know that essentially unweathered crude oil can be found on some Prince William Sound beaches nearly 25 years after the spill. We would not know that exposure to oil, combined with a natural virus, likely caused the collapse of the herring fishery four years after the spill; that exposure to just a few parts per billion of oil can kill salmon embryos; that social disruption of killer whale pods can essentially be permanent; and that adult female harlequin ducks experienced reduced overwinter survival in oiled areas as long as 10 years after the spill."

In Alaska the spill fund trustees invested in new techniques to mark hatchery salmon to better manage wild stocks, and they continue to monitor the herring population, which never recovered from its post-spill collapse, Senner said. "We would be missing an enormous opportunity if we don't track injury and recovery in the Gulf. Such information is critical to inform future oil spill responses around the world, and given the huge importance of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, there is a tremendous opportunity to make similar strides in that region."

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