The Blog Aquatic » Kara Lankford News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 28 Aug 2014 17:32:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Restoration Report Card: Gulf Council Fails at Public Participation Fri, 22 Aug 2014 01:09:56 +0000 Kara Lankford

Today the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council made some big announcements and provided more information on how they will choose projects to restore the Gulf. We’ve graded the Council’s efforts today, and the results are a mixed bag.

Project selection process: B+

The Council announced that the window for submitting projects to restore the Gulf starts today and will be open until at least November 17. They’ve also provided a detailed strategy on how they will evaluate projects based on science and the goals of the Council. While some questions remain, these details further lay the groundwork for the Council to select projects based on merit, not politics. For example, how will the science reviews be used to further prioritize projects? Will reviewers be permitted to rank projects as high, medium or low priority to guide Council staff recommendations? Will the public have access to summaries of independent reviews to help inform their comments? Answers to these questions are important, but overall, this is great news for the Gulf.

Public participation: F

The Council’s new fact sheet on public participation doesn’t provide details about how they plan to achieve meaningful public engagement across the Gulf Coast. Since the Council was formed with the passage of the RESTORE Act in 2012, they have frequently reiterated the importance of public engagement. In the spring of this year, Council staff made the rounds in each of the five Gulf states to ask conservation nonprofits, community leaders and fishermen for recommendations on how to engage the public in restoring the Gulf. These groups provided input under the impression that a process for participation and involvement was coming. Now, there is no mention of these recommendations in the Council’s fact sheet.

The Council states they “will continue to seek input from the public as it continues its work to plan for and implement large-scale ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf region.” However, they fail to outline how this will be achieved. There is no website for sending project ideas to the Council and no list of community meetings for Gulf residents to speak out about how Gulf restoration dollars should be spent. The Council should seek public participation as a cohesive body, not as individual agencies or states. This will ensure a coordinated, consistent process across the five Gulf states, and will allow for all council members to hear from the Gulf Coast citizens, from Texas to Florida.

The Council also states “restoration work in the Gulf region will not be successful without genuine and meaningful input from the people in the region.” We couldn’t agree more. With a task so critical and personal to the people of the Gulf Coast, their involvement should be front and center. The Council should stay true to their word and provide a meaningful platform for Gulf Coast residents to be involved in the restoration process.

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High Five to the RESTORE Council! Sat, 26 Jul 2014 00:55:48 +0000 Kara Lankford

In order to successfully restore the Gulf of Mexico from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Ocean Conservancy, as you may recall, has a tried-and-true Recipe for Restoration:

1 part science

1 part public engagement

1 part clear criteria for decision-making

We are so pleased today to see that the RESTORE Council is following our recipe for success. As the federal and state partnership charged with determining how billion of dollars in Clean Water Act fines will be spent, the RESTORE Council announced their plans today for receiving and evaluating proposals for Gulf restoration projects. This long-awaited announcement has been years in the making, and Ocean Conservancy has been one of the strongest supporters for a science-based platform for successful Gulf restoration. Thanks to the actions taken by the Council today, projects to restore the Gulf will be chosen based on merit, not on politics.
 The Council lays out a five-step process for project selection. Projects and programs that meet these criteria will be included in a draft prioritized list, known as the Funded Priorities List. The Council’s process will accomplish the following:

1.     Proposes focus areas of restoring habitat and water quality for projects and programs which will be included on the Funded Priorities List as the first addendum to the Initial Comprehensive Plan.

2.     Encourages project submissions that emphasize the following:

    • How a project is foundational in the sense that the project forms the initial core steps in addressing a significant ecosystem issue and that future projects can be tiered to substantially increase the benefits;
    • How a project will be sustainable over time;
    • Why a project is likely to succeed; and
    • How a project benefits the human community where implementation occurs.

3.     Provides for external independent scientific review of project proposals.

4.     Ensures that all applicable environmental compliance requirements are addressed.

5.     Ensures that projects meet both statutory requirements and commitments the Council made in the Comprehensive Plan.

Ocean Conservancy applauds the Council for seeking external scientific review of project proposals. This is so important to ensure that Gulf restoration projects are based on the best available science. We are also pleased to hear that they are committed to a transparent process, with projects coordinated across state lines. After all, fish don’t observe state lines underwater!

We commend the Council for their dedication and perseverance to accomplish the enormous task of restoring the Gulf, not just from the BP oil disaster, but also from decades of environmental disasters. The process outlined by the Council may not be perfect, but it will help guide restoration toward a comprehensive, ecosystem-wide approach to Gulf restoration. There is still much work to do and many more hurdles to jump, but today was certainly a victory. Let’s take time to celebrate this win. High five!

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A Victory for Gulf Sea Turtles Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:32:54 +0000 Kara Lankford

Blair Witherington

Last September, we asked you to help us protect the Gulf’s sea turtles and today, I have some wonderful news to share. Thanks to more than 5,000 of our supporters, 685 miles of beaches and nearly 200,000 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico have now been declared critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles. The newly protected areas include floating Sargassum mats, where young sea turtles live and grow.

This victory is an important step toward a fully restored Gulf. During the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, tens of thousands of sea turtles were located in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico where oil accumulated at the surface. The BP oil disaster started during sea turtle nesting season, and as millions of barrels of oil bubbled up from the seafloor that summer, loggerhead sea turtles were returning to the Gulf Coast to lay their eggs. Almost 300 sea turtle nests had to be relocated from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast in 2010, in order for the young turtles to have a better chance at survival. This meant over 14,000 loggerhead sea turtles hatched along Atlantic Coast instead of their home beaches in the Gulf.

Several other environmental organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and Oceana played a key role in this victory. These groups took legal action, which forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to act.

Victories like this one inspire me to continue working towards a healthy Gulf. It proves that decision-makers are listening and it reminds me that together, we have the power to make a difference for the Gulf.

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New Projects Miss Opportunity to Jump Start Restoration in the Gulf Fri, 27 Jun 2014 01:45:58 +0000 Kara Lankford

© Cheryl Gerber

Today marks another milestone in the process to restore the Gulf of Mexico. But, the news isn’t all positive.  We’ve been waiting four years now for BP to “make it right” for the Gulf and clean up the mess they made when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. We knew the process of determining how much damage BP had done, sending them the bill and restoring what was lost would take time. This process is known as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA), and even in the case of smaller-scale oil spills in the past, it has taken years to complete. Knowing that the full extent of damage in the Gulf could take years, even a decade or more, to document, BP and our Gulf leaders decided to speed up the recovery process—a decision that seemed to be a step in the right direction.

If you recall back in April 2011, one year after the disaster began, BP announced in an unprecedented agreement that it would provide $1 billion to begin the much-needed restoration process in the wake of what became the largest oil disaster in U.S. history. This agreement, the largest of its kind ever reached under NRDA, was a hopeful step toward recovery. With this $1 billion “down payment” from BP, the healing process of this vast and precious ecosystem could begin.

But, this agreement was also an experiment—an experiment in how the Trustees will choose to use the NRDA funding in the future, how they will work together, and how they will ensure recovery of the Gulf. Today, the Trustees announced the final list of phase III early restoration projects, most of which are geared toward addressing lost recreational or human use, rather than restoring the Gulf itself. As we watch boardwalks being built and construction crews developing beach-front property with NRDA funding, we must ask ourselves, what are the end results of this experiment? Is this the kind of legacy we want to leave behind? For my part, I see a lost opportunity to emphasize the importance of restoring our precious natural resources consistent with the intent of NRDA.

One doesn’t have to look hard to find evidence of injury. Over the last four years, scientists have documented injury in fish that were exposed to oil and dispersants, found large areas of polluted deep-sea sediments and dead deep-sea corals, and estimated the die-off of massive numbers of seabirds. In addition, sick and dead dolphins continue to wash ashore in unusually high numbers. Yet, only one project has been slated for funding that addresses these impacts.

We are, however, encouraged that the trustees are considering a long-term approach to monitoring for the final Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan for the disaster. But we’re concerned that some Phase III projects may have environmental impacts and in those cases we would encourage further NEPA analysis.

The Trustees were given a never-before-seen chance to begin the recovery process with $1 billion and so far they have largely lost this opportunity to jump-start restoration. The question remains, at what cost to the Gulf of Mexico?

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My Personal Journey from Hope to Restoration Four Years After the BP Oil Disaster (Part 2) Fri, 18 Apr 2014 11:00:21 +0000 Kara Lankford

Photo: Sarah West

2010 marked a changing point both for the Gulf and for me personally. There is a distinct dividing line  ̶ before the disaster and after the disaster. I’ve now worked for Ocean Conservancy for over three years and, as I look forward to the potential opportunities that will arise to make the Gulf healthier, stronger and more resilient. I find myself hopeful. Many times it takes a tragedy or a disaster to make us appreciate what we have. I took the Gulf and all the things it offered throughout my life for granted. Now more than ever I want to protect, preserve and restore this beautiful place. The long road to restoration won’t be a walk in the park. In fact, it will be a marathon.

As impacts emerge, I’m reminded that, even though the oil has stopped flowing, the harmful effects will be felt for years to come. Over the course of the last year, three important stories have emerged about impacts to the Gulf ecosystem:

  1. Dolphins in Barataria Bay are showing severe signs of poor health;
  2. An area of 24 square kilometers at the bottom of the Gulf surrounding the blowout site was severely impacted; and
  3. Multiple studies have been conducted to determine how oil impacts offshore marine fish, such as bluefin tuna.

In order to fully restore the Gulf of Mexico from both oil impacts and prior degradation, it will take a comprehensive, holistic approach from the coast to the deep sea. This includes the coastal communities impacted by the spill. It won’t be an easy task and will require some growing pains and the ability to adjust and overcome obstacles. Restoration projects should be guided by the best available science, they should be regional in nature, and a rigorous, adaptable monitoring program should be built into each project. Lastly, all projects should be fully vetted by the public. This disaster affected Gulf Coast citizens at a very local level, and they should have a voice in the restoration process.

When we think about how to restore the Gulf, many folks would imagine rebuilding oyster reefs or replanting marsh grass. These activities are tangible and near the shore. But, when we try to picture deep-water restoration, the picture gets a little fuzzy. How does one even begin to restore this mysterious place? In order to answer this question Ocean Conservancy convened experts from around the Gulf Coast to identify projects that would restore the marine environment. A critical piece of the restoration puzzle, a comprehensive Gulf of Mexico marine habitat map, was among restoration options identified. Mapping the Gulf would tell us what type of habitats exist, and where, as well as what condition they are in at this time. It would also provide a tool that allows scientists to more accurately study the abundance and health of fish populations, and provide fishery managers the information needed to better sustain a healthy fishing industry. It’s a unique project, building knowledge rather than habitat. The BP disaster brought to light the unfortunate lack of baseline scientific information we have on the Gulf’s ecosystem. In order to restore what was lost, we must first know what was there. Without good scientific data and a good understanding of both the species and their habitats, restoration efforts are not complete.

The challenge at hand is restoring an ecosystem so precious to us and our way of life. Gulf restoration is personal to those who call the Gulf home. Each day, I’m reminded of the magnitude of this task before us. We have one chance to get this right. When I look back 25 years from now at what has been accomplished, I hope I look back with satisfaction at a course well charted.

That’s why we’re asking BP to do their part. They’ve spent almost four years and millions in ad buys telling us they’d take responsibility for the disaster. And what we’re asking is simple: BP, put your money where your mouth is, keep your promise and make things right in the Gulf. Take action today!

To read the first part of this series, please click here.

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My Personal Journey from Despair to Hope Four Years After the BP Oil Disaster (Part 1) Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:45:55 +0000 Kara Lankford

Kara Lankford flies in a Black Hawk helicopter to assess damage done by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Four summers ago, I was in a Black Hawk helicopter overlooking the Alabama beaches, helplessly watching oil roll in from the spill on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. I was working as a natural resource planner for Baldwin County on the Alabama Gulf Coast when Deepwater Horizon exploded, and the first reports of the tragic loss of life stopped me in my tracks. As the days went on, it was evident that this was not only a human tragedy but also a serious environmental disaster. As the oil continued to gush from the well, oil projection maps were published daily, and each day the oil grew closer to the Alabama coast. Suddenly this place where I had spent so many happy days was about to change, and change dramatically.

Mobile, Alabama is my hometown, a small port city on Mobile Bay. I’ll never forget the trips to the beach during the summer with my big sister and fishing at Cedar Point pier near Dauphin Island or Gulf State Park in Orange Beach. I still recall how proud I was to a catch a mullet or a flounder, if I was lucky. These fond memories helped shape my passion for the Gulf and drove me to pursue an environmental degree during college, so that I could help protect the things I loved so much about the coast. Little did I know that the Gulf would experience one of the worst environmental disasters in the world.

While working for the county I attended meetings at Incident Command, the logistics center for the oil spill response. There, the county government decided to place oil booms in strategic locations in an effort to protect the fragile salt marshes. About 200,000 feet of boom was placed in the county limits alone. We flew in Black Hawk helicopters once a week to make sure the boom was still in its proper place. On one flight, we began to see the oil moving in; the colorful sheen was unmistakable. Skimmer boats attempted to remove the oil from the water before it reached the beach, but the beautiful white quartz sand where I used to build sand castles as a kid was already stained orange from the oil. Oil spill cleanup crews took the place of sunbathers and parasails on the beach. Seeing all this from the air was devastating. Reports of oiled pelicans and dead dolphins filled the news stories each evening. I remember thinking that I would have to move elsewhere instead of watch this destruction play out in a place so dear to me.

Eighty-seven days slowly ticked by. After many attempts to cap the well, it was finally over, but not before 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled into the vast Gulf ecosystem. The following months would not bring much peace. By the winter of 2010, I was working as a natural resource advisor to the crews working to clean oil from the Alabama coast. By this time, most of the oil was weathered and in the form of tar balls and large mats just offshore. Most of my time was spent with the crews working in the back bays of Orange Beach. It was amazing how far the oil traveled into the back bays. The crews cleaned tar balls ranging in size from a dime to larger than your hand. On occasion I worked the beach front where heavy equipment called sand sharks sifted the oil from the sand. Each time the Gulf was churned up by even a thunderstorm, more tar balls would wash up on the beaches. This was our new reality.

As 2010 came to an end, I began working for Ocean Conservancy as an outreach specialist in Alabama and Mississippi. My work brought me closer to my fellow Gulf Coast citizens, and I began to consider the resilience we exhibit in the face of disasters. This is home. After a hurricane, we rebuild, but I wondered if it was possible to rebuild after an oil spill. Act now and stay tuned for Part 2 of this post to see if this devastating disaster could somehow be made into a positive opportunity for the Gulf of Mexico.

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Lengthy Gulf Restoration Plan Needs to Dive Deeper Mon, 03 Feb 2014 13:00:14 +0000 Kara Lankford

Photo: Blair Witherington

If you’re like me, the recent holiday season has erased some of your memory (I think it’s all the sweets), and you may be in need of a refresher on where we left off last year in the Gulf restoration process. Last month, the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment trustees released a long-awaited draft Early Restoration Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS). This was exciting news for the Gulf of Mexico, because the PEIS is critical for laying the groundwork for a comprehensive, long-term and integrated restoration process in the wake of the BP oil disaster.

Ocean Conservancy’s experts have been going through the nearly 2,500-page document with a fine-tooth comb over the last several weeks, and we can now present you with our preliminary views. When the PEIS process started last summer, over 1,000 of our supporters sent messages to the trustees with specific recommendations on what should be included in this document to ensure the Gulf ecosystem is made whole.  Let’s see how well the trustees did:

Lots of fishing piers, but not enough fish

While the 44 projects included in this phase of restoration are a big step toward restoring the Gulf, only nine of those projects are truly ecosystem restoration projects. The other 35 are meant to compensate the public for the lost days at the beach, on a fishing pier, or out on a boat in 2010 when oil was still spewing into the Gulf. This means building new boat ramps, fishing piers, and beach boardwalks. The questions remains: Without restoring fish populations, what will we be fishing for on those new piers? In order to restore the public’s use of the Gulf, we must first restore the Gulf itself.

Need to dive deeper

We are also disappointed to see that the offshore environment, where the disaster began, is left out of the picture. The project types listed in this plan do not include restoration of key species and habitats, such as dolphins, seabirds, Sargassum and corals. As you know, dolphins in Barataria Bay are suffering from poor health; deep-water corals are showing signs of oil damage, and Sargassum mats – the floating seaweed that serves as a home for the Gulf’s tiniest creatures, including juvenile sea turtles – were burned during the oil cleanup process. Given this growing list of evidence against BP, we must encourage the trustees to hold them accountable for this damage and include these restoration strategies in this plan.

The release of the draft PEIS is a step in the right direction, and we must urge the trustees to make the necessary changes and additions in order for this to be a truly holistic, ecosystem-based restoration plan.

Ocean Conservancy’s goal is to send 1,500 public comments from Gulf state residents to the trustees before the comment period ends on February 19. If you live in the Gulf or know someone who does, please share this message  and help ensure the health of the Gulf ecosystem for generations to come.

For our full analysis of this big legal document, download our assessment.

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