GulfCorps members working on a Gulf restoration project.
Sea Oat Planting GulfCorps members working on a Gulf restoration project. © John Stanmeyer

Stories in the Gulf of Mexico

Lessons from the Gulf

Ten Years After the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Director of The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico
Bob Bendick Director, Gulf of Mexico


The Gulf Coast 200 Years Ago

On warm days along the Gulf coast, one can see wood storks soaring high among the clouds. Ungainly looking on the ground, they are beautiful flyers. The view from thousands of feet up must be spectacular as they circle on the thermals. Let’s then imagine that we could fly with the storks looking down at the Gulf coast in the spring about 200 years ago.

One could see barrier islands and their pristine beaches, maritime forests, and row upon row of sand dunes extending into the distance. Millions of acres of longleaf pine forests would be visible to the north interspersed with towering cypress and tupelo trees along winding coastal-plain rivers. An unrestrained Mississippi River flowed through vast marshes to the Gulf.

Visible below would be flocks of birds resting on beaches, flying together, gathering in rookeries, ten times more numerous than today. And the waters of bays and along the coast would be darkened by huge schools of fish. An account of a day in Boca Grande Pass on Florida’s Gulf coast from A.W. Dimock published in Harper’s Monthly magazine even 100 years later than our imaginary flight reads like this:

“Following the storm, the fishing at Boca Grande was marvelous. The mile-wide pass was filled with minnows by the thousand million, making dark patches upon the water, often many acres in extent. Among them porpoises rolled, thousands of tarpon leaped, the fins of hundreds of great sharks cut lanes through the, uncountable cavalli, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish and other predatory small fry, devouring and being devoured, beat the water into surf-like waves; while moved by a single impulse, here, there, and everywhere, minnows by the yard or acres were leaping three feet in the air, filling it with rainbow-tinted mases of spray.”

And then there were the oysters—wild oyster reefs once filled the Gulf’s estuaries. Remnants of them are still there at Cedar Key, in the Ten thousand Islands in Florida, and near the mouth of the Sabine River at the Louisiana/Texas Border. The oyster reefs and the oysters that populated them were so plentiful across the Gulf that they completely filtered the water of bays in a few days allowing seagrass to thrive. The oyster reefs sustained plentiful stocks of fish, crabs and shrimp.

Human settlement would have been hardly evident 200 years ago. Pensacola had barely 700 residents. New Orleans, with more than 10,000 people was making a small dent in the wilderness. The remaining native American villages touched the land lightly. Over thousands of years the native Americans had learned to live with the dynamic power of a coastline where the landscape was not just resilient, but was a product of frequent tropical storms, floods and wildfires. Nothing was or needed to be fixed in place. Land and people were adapted to dynamic natural processes.

The Gulf Has Changed

As we all know, the Gulf has been changed over the last 200 years. 22 million people now live along its shores in cities and towns that have re-made coastlines and discharged their wastes into adjacent waters. These communities have the expectation that the wild, dynamic Gulf ecosystem has been or should be fixed in place to accommodate their needs. After the great 1927 flood on the Mississippi the Army Corps of Engineers tried to control, confine and harness the Mississippi’s waters from Minnesota to the Gulf. Among other things, this reduced the flow of sediment that nourished the Louisiana marshes. Intensive agriculture in the Mississippi basin sends nitrogen and phosphorous to the Gulf causing the large annual dead zone. Freshwater flows in the Gulf’s rivers have been altered--damaging their downstream estuaries. In places like the Apalachicola and the Suwanee in Florida and the rivers of Texas there is sometimes too little freshwater. In others, like in recent flood events on the Mississippi, there is too much.

A combination of altered freshwater flows, overharvesting, sedimentation from storms, and the mining of oyster reefs for other purposes has caused the drastic decline of wild oyster stocks—more than 80% of the reefs have been lost and this decline has brought with it water quality problems and decreases in the numbers of fish, shrimp and crabs that depend on oyster reefs for habitat.

 And then, there is climate change and the accompanying sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms—potentially a killer threat to the longstanding relationship between people and the Gulf.

Aerial view of wetlands and marshlands that comprise the Mississippi River delta on the Louisiana Gulf Coast
Louisiana Gulf Coast marshes Aerial view of wetlands and marshlands that comprise the Mississippi River delta on the Louisiana Gulf Coast © Bridget Besaw

Despite Many Problems, the Gulf Remains a Remarkable Place

The list of problems is long, but despite all the losses, the Gulf remains a vibrant ecosystem. It still has 15,000 marine species. It produces more seafood than anyplace else in the U.S. outside of Alaska. As Dr. Jorge Brenner of The Nature Conservancy’s Texas Chapter has documented, the Gulf still hosts large migrations of fish, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals. And the Gulf drives the regional economy. Its beaches attract tourists. Its ports accommodate marine transportation. It is home to a string of military bases.

The Gulf has its own unique culture and way of life, and part of that culture is an increasing recognition of the need to protect what’s best about the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has 7 National Estuary Programs, 5 National Estuarine Research Reserves, dozens of National Wildlife Refuges, 2 National Seashores, and 2 National Marine Sanctuaries. The Gulf of Mexico Alliance was founded in 2004 by the region’s Governors so that state and federal agencies could work together on identifying and solving the Gulf’s problems. There have been many conservation and restoration successes thanks to dedicated public officials, engaged citizens, and environmental groups.

GulfCorps members after their orientation retreat.
GulfCorps members GulfCorps members after their orientation retreat. © Mike Dumas/TNC

The Deepwater Horizon Settlement Is a Unique Opportunity to Address the Gulf’s Problems

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of ten years ago was a tragedy in itself, but it was also a symbol, an example of the decline of the health of the Gulf as a whole and a wake-up call for realizing the value people across the Gulf region place on its resources. The settlement with BP that followed the spill did something unprecedented in this country and perhaps in the world. It set aside a large amount of money over an extended period of time for the restoration of an ecosystem of national and global importance. These funds do not have to be appropriated by Congress, can’t be taken away and are focused on ecological restoration.

While admittedly the expenditure of restoration funds took a while to get started, we are now seeing very promising progress:

  • Large-scale coastal land acquisition like the purchase of the 17,000 acres Powderhorn Ranch in Texas, the 20,000-acre Lake Wimico tract at the west end of Apalachicola Bay in Florida, land in Grand Bay Alabama and Mississippi that creates a 26,000-acre coastal corridor, continuation of conservation of land around Laguna Madre in South Texas, and large tracts along the Perdido River corridor in Alabama.
  • The creation of three estuary programs by Florida panhandle counties and enhanced support of National Estuary Program planning such as in Mobile Bay.
  • Important steps to defend coastal Louisiana like the reconstruction of barrier islands and funding for the Maurepas River diversion
  • Reconstruction of coastal features like the Lightning Point project in Bayou LaBatre, Alabama and Shamrock Island, Texas.
  • Construction of oyster reefs in Matagorda, Galveston, Pensacola, Apalachicola, and St Louis Bays, Calcasieu Lake and Florida’s Suwannee River estuary
  • Creation of GulfCorps to involve disadvantaged young people in meaningful Gulf restoration in all five Gulf states
  • Restoration of forests in important Gulf watersheds such as in the Apalachicola Basin
  • Acquisition and improvement of many access points to the shore for citizens of and visitors to enjoy the Gulf
The 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch in Calhoun County is one of the few remaining large tracts of intact native coastal prairie and wetlands on the Texas coast.
Powderhorn Ranch, Texas The 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch in Calhoun County is one of the few remaining large tracts of intact native coastal prairie and wetlands on the Texas coast. © Jerod Foster

Lessons from Gulf Restoration

In the process of designing, selecting and implementing these projects, we (and I don’t just mean the Nature Conservancy, but the whole range of agencies, communities and institutions working in the Gulf) have learned important lessons about how to increase the chances of success of large-scale restoration of the Gulf of Mexico and of other important ecosystems. Here is a top ten list not necessarily in priority order:

  1. Funding for restoration of a large ecosystem that is guaranteed over time encourages good planning and channels the energy and creativity of people and their governments toward how to select and design the best projects.
  2. Bi-partisan support for Gulf restoration, beginning at the time of the spill, has avoided delays and unproductive conflict over restoration strategies.
  3. Intergovernmental institutions like the RESTORE and Trustee Councils have enabled agencies to work across local, state and federal boundaries to operate at the scale of natural processes and to address regionwide problems. But intergovernmental cooperation remains a challenge.
  4. Important restoration wisdom flows from the bottom up, from communities, counties and states to inform federal and Gulfwide initiatives with a down-to-earth understanding of problems and solutions.
  5. Investments in science, engineering and monitoring are essential in guiding restoration projects that produce the desired results and contribute to the design of even-more-effective future projects.
  6. Competitive funding processes are effective at getting organizations to work cooperatively to propose innovative solutions to the Gulf’s problems.
  7. As demonstrated by GulfCorps, disadvantaged young people can play an important role in restoring the Gulf, connecting Gulf restoration to their communities, and building a restoration economy.
  8. Effective non-profit organizations are critical to large ecosystem restoration because they span both geography and time. They provide continuity across political boundaries and as administrations come and go.
  9. Getting a wide range of projects done on-the-ground is essential. People are tired of talk. Well-monitored real examples are essential in creating strategies that can then be taken to scale.
  10. And finally, individuals matter in the outcome—smart, practical, motivated and committed people who love the Gulf drive accomplishment over time at the local, state, non-profit and federal levels.
© Hunter Nichols

Our Future Gulf

It is my hope that we at The Nature Conservancy will, as part of the Gulf coast community, help to bring these lessons together with more on-the-ground and in-the-water accomplishments to achieve a level of restoration progress that will then inspire continuation of a high level of investment in shaping the future Gulf far beyond the limits of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill funding. Success in this endeavor might look something like this seen from the perspective of a wood stork flying high above the coast 25 years from now:

  • A pattern of development where, while large cities may be protected by seawalls and floodgates, in most places built-up areas are integrated with restored natural features and coastal open space designed to reduce the impacts of rising seas and storms. More barrier islands and beaches are restored as parks with dunes and forests that protect the mainland from storm surge. Coastal wildlife refuges and other public lands extend inland to enable marsh succession as an integral part of coastal land protection.
  • Millions of acres of floodplains along the Mississippi and other Gulf rivers that are too wet for reliable agriculture are restored to bottomland forests to hold floodwaters and remove nutrients.
  • Traditional marshes across the northern Gulf are succeeding to mangroves affording greater protection from storms than traditional marsh grass
  • The Mississippi River Delta has more open water to the south, but the remaining wetlands look more solid and durable having benefitted from additional sediment from river diversions.
  • A new generation of oyster reefs is visible beneath and along bays with clearer water and much more seagrass. The boats of oystermen (and women) can be seen harvesting oyster some reefs and leaving others to produce young oysters and to support thriving populations of crabs and fish. In some bays there are rows of oyster cages from an expanded aquaculture industry.
  • The shadows of schools of baitfish l have returned to the shallows increased by the renewal of oyster reefs, by migratory fish passage on the Alabama and Apalachicola Rivers, and by improved fisheries management.
  • And, on a warm spring day, the people of the Gulf are visible on beaches, in commercial and recreational fishing boats, working in ports to unload ships, training to keep the country safe, and just sitting and enjoying the view of their Gulf of Mexico.

This good future Gulf is achievable if the people of the Gulf region take ownership of both its problems and its great potential, if they recognize the full importance of nature to human well-being, and if those of us working on Gulf restoration today can successfully pass along care of the Gulf’s resources to a new, diverse and energetic generation of Gulf stewards.

Director of The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico

Bob Bendick is director of The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico. Learn about Bob’s background and expertise.

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