Ocean Currents » gulf of mexico http://blog.oceanconservancy.org News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Fri, 19 Jun 2015 18:06:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.4.2 Using Big Data to Restore the Gulf of Mexico http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/06/16/using-big-data-to-restore-the-gulf-of-mexico/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/06/16/using-big-data-to-restore-the-gulf-of-mexico/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 14:18:14 +0000 Libby Fetherston http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10325

If I ask you to close your eyes and picture “protection for marine species,” you might immediately think of brave rescuers disentangling whales from fishing gear.

Or maybe you would imagine the army of volunteers who seek out and protect sea turtle nests. Both are noble and worthwhile endeavors.

But 10 years of ocean conservation in the southeast United States has taught me that protecting marine species doesn’t just look like the heroic rescue of adorable species in need.

I’ve learned that it also looks like the screen of 1s and 0s from the movie The Matrix.

Let me explain.

Much of what goes on with marine life in the Gulf of Mexico—and much of the rest of the ocean—is too dark and distant to see and measure easily or directly. Whales and fish and turtles move around a lot. This makes it difficult to collect information on how many there are in the Gulf and how well those populations are doing.

In order to assess their health, you need to know where these marine species go, what they eat, why they spend time in certain areas (for food, shelter, or breeding?), and more. This information may come from a number of places—state agencies, universities, volunteer programs, you name it—and be stored in a number of different file formats.

Until recently, there was no real way to combine all of these disparate pixels of information into a coherent picture of, for instance, a day in the life of a sea turtle. DIVER, NOAA’s new website for Deepwater Horizon assessment data, gives us the tools to do just that.

Data information and integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing you to look for causes and effects that you might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

Of course, this idea is far from new. For years, NOAA and ocean advocates have both been talking about a concept known as “ecosystem-based management” for marine species. Put simply, ecosystem-based management is a way to find out what happens to the larger tapestry if you pull on one of the threads woven into it.

For example, if you remove too many baitfish from the ecosystem, will the predatory fish and wildlife have enough to eat? If you have too little freshwater coming through the estuary into the Gulf, will nearby oyster and seagrass habitats survive? In order to make effective and efficient management decisions in the face of these kinds of complex questions, it helps to have all of the relevant information working together in a single place, in a common language, and in a central format.

A view of the many sets of Gulf of Mexico environmental data that the tool DIVER can bring together. (NOAA)

So is data management the key to achieving species conservation in the Gulf of Mexico? It just might be.

Systems like DIVER are set up to take advantage of quantum leaps in computing power that were not available to the field of environmental conservation 10 years ago. These advances give DIVER the ability to accept reams of diverse and seemingly unrelated pieces of information and, over time, turn them into insight about the nature and location of the greatest threats to marine wildlife.

The rising tide of restoration work and research in the Gulf of Mexico will bring unprecedented volumes of data that should—and now can—be used to design and execute conservation strategies with the most impact for ocean life in our region. Ocean Conservancy is excited about the opportunity for systems like DIVER to kick off a new era in how we examine information and solve problems.

This blog was originally published on NOAA’s Response and Restoration Blog.

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Red Snapper Season Starts June 1: Not All Smooth Sailing http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/29/red-snapper-season-starts-june-1-not-all-smooth-sailing/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/29/red-snapper-season-starts-june-1-not-all-smooth-sailing/#comments Fri, 29 May 2015 18:44:03 +0000 J.P. Brooker http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10278

Photo: Ned Deloach / Marine Life Images

Anglers all over the Gulf of Mexico will spend their weekend getting ready for Monday, June 1,  the first day of the 2015 Gulf of Mexico recreational red snapper fishing season. Thanks to the hard work of fishermen, managers and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, fishermen will be able to catch more red snapper this year than the past 8 years.  While we are seeing increases in the allowable catch of red snapper, recreational fishermen have witnessed red snapper fishing seasons shrink year after year. This year the private boat-owning public can fish for a short 10 days while anglers fishing with charter-for-hire captains get 44 days. The charter-for-hire season is a solid increase over the 2014 season, which allowed only 9 fishing days for both components of the recreational fishing sector, but the short 10-day private recreational remains problematic. While there is no arguing that the longer charter-for-hire fleet is fantastic news for captains and their charters, the short private boat-owner’s season illustrates the need for management innovation for the private recreational fishing component that will help anglers access and enjoy the fruits of a healthy and growing Gulf red snapper population.

Federal managers must manage the Gulf’s red snapper as a total body from the beach to the edge of U.S. territorial waters, even as the individual gulf states increase their anglers’ access in their territorial waters by lengthening state-water seasons. Federal managers must account for the states’ longer state-water seasons when setting federal days, therefore being forced by the states’ actions to shorten federal-water fishing to limit the risk of jeopardizing the Gulf red snapper’s rebuilding progress. The states’ actions makes managing the red snapper’s rebuilding plan much more challenging and forces anglers to place more pressure on state-water fisheries. Managing red snapper consistently across state and federal waters makes sense, since fish do not respect political borders, swimming freely throughout their range regardless of state- or federal-water boundaries.

Though fish do not have to respect borders, anglers do. Inconsistent state seasons lead to an inequality in the recreational fishery that left the non-boat-owning public that uses the federally permitted charter-for-hire fleet to access red snapper for only the 9 days that federal waters were open, while the private boat-owning public was able to enjoy their longer state-water seasons plus the days available in federal waters. The inequality faced by the charter fleet and its anglers also threatened the coastal communities that thrive on healthy tourism economies that are serviced by the charter fleet.

Fortunately, for the general public that uses the charter-for-hire fleet to access red snapper and for our coastal communities and their economies, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council adopted an amendment called Sector Separation that splits the recreational red snapper fishery into two subcomponents: the charter-for-hire fleet and the private boat owning public. Sector Separation allows each subcomponent the ability to develop management measures that ensure each sub-sector is not exceeding its share of the recreational quota. This is great news for the resource and the general public that uses the charter fleet that gets 44 days since there is a limited number of federally permitted boats servicing a large number of anglers. But unfortunately, as the states continue increasing state-water seasons, their actions create a perceived inequity for the private boat-owning public that watches their federal-water access remain stagnant or shrink because of a lack of innovative and accountable, component-specific management tools.

The perceived inequity between the two recreational components can be remedied with new approaches to private management.

If the private component is to enjoy longer federal-water seasons, exploring new management ideas for its anglers is essential. More comprehensive data collection for recreational anglers can improve accountability and prevent the sector from exceeding its allowable catch, but other solutions should be addressed, too, beginning with state consistency that would allow greater federal-water access for all anglers and allowing managers the stability to place durable and resilient private angler management tools into place. Improved accountability in the private recreational fishery is the first step to more days on the water for anglers and more fish in coolers for all, while ensuring that red snapper rebuilding efforts continue to be successful.

Tight lines to any and all targeting red snapper!

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Across the Gulf; Saving Sea Turtles in Tecolutla, Mexico http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/26/across-the-gulf-saving-sea-turtles-in-tecolutla-mexico/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/26/across-the-gulf-saving-sea-turtles-in-tecolutla-mexico/#comments Tue, 26 May 2015 19:35:11 +0000 Guest Blogger http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10258

Hello! My name is Jessica Miller. I am an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, where I just completed my sophomore year. I am majoring in biology and I intend to eventually pursue a career in research. Growing up in a small town in South Carolina, I developed a deep interest in science and knew I wanted to do something with animals. This summer I am traveling to Mexico to participate in an amazing study abroad program that will help with the conservation of endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, as well as provide valuable information on the degree of marine debris found in the area.

On May 8th, I traveled to Mexico for the first time in my life. While many people travel to the country to explore the sites and relax on the beaches, my intentions are slightly different. I have an awesome opportunity to conduct research with several other students in my study abroad program. What exactly is it that we will be researching? Sea turtles, of course! More specifically, the primary focus of my voyage is the conservation of the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. These turtles are endangered and quite unique as well.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are relatively small by sea turtle standards. They usually only grow to be about 3 feet long with a shell that is about 2 feet long. They are also one of the few sea turtles to nest during the day. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles also have a limited nesting habitat. They only nest along the Gulf of Mexico, which highlights one of the many reasons the Gulf is so important; and why the condition of its beaches is so important as home to a variety of marine organisms that do not exist anywhere else. More information on the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, along with other work being done in Tecolutla, can be found at the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project.

A variety of anthropogenic factors impact Kemp’s – including major issues such as egg poaching oil spills, and incidental capture in fishing equipment. Egg poaching is very serious, because when extensive enough, it can wipe out generations because it is so easy for people to find turtle nests and take the unguarded eggs. Accidental capture by fishing boats is often caused by boats, particularly shrimping boats, drag large nets along the ocean floor. Sea turtles can unintentionally get caught and drown if they can’t escape.  Fortunately, modern regulations require U.S. shrimpers to use what are known as Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which have significantly reduced turtle mortality in American waters.  However, regulations, implementation and enforcement are sometimes not as strong in other countries where turtles may feed or migrate through.

Our research is attempting to assess a variety of aspects of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that will hopefully aid in the management and eventual recovery of the species.  One of the projects involves trying to tag every turtle that comes ashore to nest in a 10km stretch of beach in the southern Gulf of Mexico.  We hope to be able to use these tags to eventually answer questions about turtle nesting biology, number of turtles and nesting site fidelity at this beach.  When we tag a turtle we also take a small tissue sample that will be used, along with samples from other areas, to genetically analyze the population structure – do Kemp’s exist as one large mixed population or are there more than one smaller separate populations.  This information is obviously critical to properly conserving the species.

I also have my own project, with the help of the Ocean Conservancy.  As part of their International Coastal Cleanup we are initiating a project to try to quantify the amount of marine debris present on the beach. Most people are already aware that marine debris is a global issue that can be detrimental to ecosystems. However, it is easy to forget that the coastline and its beaches and estuaries are part of the marine environment, too – and just as heavily affected by drifting debris as the open ocean. The impact of all of this debris, most of which I have seen has been plastic, on various organisms is less clear.  There are a variety of ways one could use to try to quantify the debris on the beach but I have been using dune to water-line transects divided into one meter square sections.  We have set up these transects in several places and are in the process of trying to determine just how much debris there is.  The data I collect will be used to get a better indication of the condition of the beach in Tecolutla. Hopefully it will be used to identify major concerns to the beach’s well-being and provide information that can then be used to create solutions to those problems.

While I have been trying to get a feel for the amount of pollution, our Mexican colleagues, Vida Milenaria, work tirelessly to try to educate the public about the hazards of marine debris for sea turtles.  Everyday they give free talks to tourists about sea turtles in general, including their interactions with marine pollution. In addition to their work to educate they are the ones responsible for relocating and protecting nests throughout the nesting season. They have been protecting this beach for 40 years and are a valuable source of information for our work.

Before leaving, we are also going to conduct a beach cleanup. It is only a small and temporary fix to the issue of marine debris, but every little bit helps.

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The Evidence Mounts: Another Study Links Dolphin Deaths in the Gulf to BP http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/21/the-evidence-mounts-another-study-links-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-to-bp/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/21/the-evidence-mounts-another-study-links-dolphin-deaths-in-the-gulf-to-bp/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 12:30:38 +0000 Alexis Baldera http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10239

Yesterday, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published new results from a series of studies in which they have investigated the unusually high number of dolphin deaths occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2010, scientists have conducted autopsies on dead dolphins to try and understand why they are dying.

They found significantly higher numbers of dolphins with severe lung disease and lesions on their adrenal glands in oiled areas than in non-oiled areas. Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson described the adrenal disease as forcing dolphins to precariously balance on a ledge which cold temperatures, pregnancy and infection can push them off, resulting in death. The lesions observed in dolphins were “some of the most severe lung lesions ever seen in wild dolphins throughout the U.S.” according to lead Pathologist, Dr. Katie Colegrove. NOAA is decisive in concluding that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster caused the dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf: “The timing, location, and nature of the detected lesions support that contaminants from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.”

These new findings are backed up by earlier studies. One publication reported dolphins in Barataria Bay had symptoms consistent with petroleum exposure that were threatening their survival. Another study analyzed where and when dolphins were stranding, and found areas contaminated with oil in 2010 and 2011 also had the highest numbers of dolphin deaths.

As researchers continue to publish the results of studies, we will further understand the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. We will also begin to understand if impacted animals and places are recovering. Bob Spies, former chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, recently said “If we care enough to understand impacts, I hope we care enough to understand recovery.” This reminds me that understanding the impacts is only the first step in restoring the Gulf. The people who live in the Gulf will rely on it throughout their lifetimes, and long-term research and environmental monitoring will provide us with the tools we need to continue to not only hold BP accountable, but also restore the Gulf.

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Postcards from Florida http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/15/postcards-from-florida/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/05/15/postcards-from-florida/#comments Fri, 15 May 2015 12:00:29 +0000 Matt Love http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10205

In honor of the 5-year memorial of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Ocean Conservancy interviewed residents about the spill, its impacts and what the Gulf means to them. Over the next 87 days—the length of the spill itself—we will be releasing “postcards from the Gulf” to share their stories. This blog is the third of a four-part series featuring some of the full-length interviews from our postcards.  Be sure to follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook and Twitter over the next couple of months to see all of the postcards.

The headlines we often hear about the Gulf of Mexico can get you down, from oil disasters to ocean acidification and coastal pollution. But it gives me hope to see young leaders of the next generation recognize the value of sustaining a healthy Gulf. Cole Kolasa, a high school student on the Gulf Coast of Florida, is one of the young leaders of tomorrow, who I believe embodies the spirit of the next generation that will alter the course of history and begin to restore the actions of the past. This is what he has to say about his Gulf of Mexico. 

Cole Kolasa
Student at Hernando High School and Member of SCUBAnauts International
Brooksville, Florida

What do you love about the Gulf?

I have spent a lot of time on the Gulf, under the water and on the surface. I have done research on corals, sponges, small fish, collected lots of data on environmental parameters, and spent many hours in the water surveying and exploring the reefs.  The one thing I value the most about the Gulf is the education it has given me over the years. I don’t think I would be the same person without it.

How did you feel when the BP oil disaster began?

I remember feeling extremely surprised and helpless. I was shocked that there was a threat of such disastrous proportions towards our ecosystem that we really couldn’t control. I wondered what would happen to the corals, sea turtles, sponges, fish, and other marine organisms in my area. My father was put in charge for the preparations for if or when the oil threatened our area, and I remember watching the news and always discussing what we could do to defend our coastline and reefs from the invading oil. Fortunately for us it never affected our coast, however what if it were to happen again?

What is your hope for restoring the Gulf?

I think that there are endless opportunities for restoration in the Gulf. Over the past few years I have participated in coral restorations in the Keys, local cleanups on our coast, and I’ve even seen abandoned coastal areas turned into fully functioning estuaries blooming with life. Even though we avoided the oil spill in my area, we still are working to fix the damage that humans have done over the past several decades. I think that other communities can still do the same.

More blogs from this series:
Postcards from Alabama
Postcards from Louisiana

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Postcards from Louisiana http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/04/21/postcards-from-louisiana/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/04/21/postcards-from-louisiana/#comments Tue, 21 Apr 2015 12:00:49 +0000 Michelle Erenberg http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10123

In honor of the 5-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Ocean Conservancy interviewed residents about the spill, its impacts and what the Gulf means to them. Over the next 87 days—the length of the spill itself—we will be releasing “postcards from the Gulf” to share their stories. This blog is the second of a four-part series featuring some of the full-length interviews from our postcards.  Be sure to follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook and Twitter over the next couple of months to see all of the postcards.

Chief Albert Naquin
Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw
Pointe-aux-Chenes, LA

At the edge of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana there is a narrow road bordered on both sides by piles of rocks and nearly open water peppered with the remnants of what was once thick marsh. This road leads to a small island, only a couple miles long and a half -mile wide. The island, called Isle de Jean Charles, is home to a Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, who settled there more than two centuries ago. The land, which sustained this tribe for generations, is vanishing.

Chief Albert Naquin has served as tribal leader since 1997. He reflects on what life was like on the island: “The land has changed in my lifetime from what it was to what it is today. When I was growing up, we could catch our fish, catch our seafood and wildlife that we needed to survive. Now we have no land; basically it’s all water.”

In the past several decades, erosion of the marsh around the island has introduced more salt water from the Gulf, changing the brackish water necessary to sustain the estuaries that provided the fish, shrimp and oysters on which the tribe depended. Chief Naquin understands the value of the marsh for the island and would like to see restoration efforts focused on restoring marsh in areas that are left out of levee protection systems.

“For restoration to be a success, I’d want to put some marsh back to stop the tidal surge. It’s the water that’s causing us the harm more than the wind. When I was growing up, you’d have to climb over the marsh to get to the beach. If we could get some of that back, it could stop the salt water from coming in.”

Beyond the impact on fisheries resources, the marsh serves another life-sustaining purpose: protection. The island was once surrounded by tall marsh grasses that caught the wind and buffered the island against storm surge and flooding.  With nothing to slow them down, storms bring with them frequent floods which have had a devastating impact on the families living on the island. “I left out the island when I was young,” Chief Naquin explains, “I guess I’m not so resilient. I fought a flood once as an adult, married with a child. We had about an inch of mud in the house after Hurricane Carmen in 1974. At that time we had about 65 homes, and today there are only 25.”

Many families have moved off the island leaving behind the most vulnerable and those with the least means. “We have some younger folks there, but I don’t know if the island’s going to last for them to see it. They may have to pack up and go. But there are others who have homes that are paid for. They can’t afford rent, or another mortgage, so they have to stay there. The displacement has had a big impact on the next generation. They want to be close to mom and dad, but they can’t.”

The cultural heritage and traditions of the tribe are threatened by the fracturing of this community. Chief Naquin and the members of the tribal council are struggling to hold the community together. In recent years, most of the tribe’s members have come to understand that their survival as a tribe will likely depend on relocating and beginning a new community further from the eroding coast. For Chief Naquin, this is not something that could happen in some distant future, the needs of this community are urgent.

“We can’t restore this community or the environment around this community, because we would have to continue to have money to keep it up, because we still have storms washing it away. For me, what’s important is to invest in a new community and to put money into a fund that would sustain the community. If we had that, we wouldn’t have to ask for help because we would have our own. That’s my goal, to be self-sufficient again with the tribe. But I’m running out of time.”

More blogs from this series:

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The Five “Rs” of Oil Spills http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/04/16/the-five-rs-of-oil-spills/ http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/2015/04/16/the-five-rs-of-oil-spills/#comments Thu, 16 Apr 2015 13:00:57 +0000 Bethany Kraft http://blog.oceanconservancy.org/?p=10099

Five years ago, I didn’t know much about oil spills. I worked for an environmental nonprofit in coastal Alabama, where I could literally see natural gas rigs pumping in the distance when I stood on the beach. But I didn’t think much about what a big spill could mean for my community until the worst-case scenario showed up on my doorstep.

Now, on the eve of the five-year memorial of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion that took the lives of 11 men and led to the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, I know a great deal more about oil spills and the toll they can take on communities.

Here are the five most important lessons I’ve learned in the last five years.


When you drill for oil offshore, the risk of a spill can be minimized, but it’s never completely eliminated. Drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is not going away anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to minimize the risk of another disaster. In January 2011, the national commission charged with investigating the BP oil disaster made a number of recommendations about improving the safety of offshore energy production nationwide, but many of those recommendations haven’t been implemented.

It’s not just the Gulf at risk of the next big spill. As drilling moves into deeper and deeper water, and into harsher (Arctic?) and new (Atlantic?) areas, it’s a question of when, not whether, the next spill will happen.


One of the important lessons of the BP oil disaster was how unprepared we were to respond to a spill of that magnitude. BP’s response plan indicated it had the ability and resources to respond to an offshore blowout of up to 250,000 barrels per day. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

We also learned quickly that the Area Contingency Plans, which lay out how the federal government will respond to a disaster like an oil spill, were woefully incomplete. The U.S. Coast Guard has made significant progress in updating those plans, but it is still unclear how local officials and community leaders can be incorporated into the Incident Command response structure and bring their local expertise to bear for the next oil spill response effort.

Lastly, response technology is stuck in the 1960s, while drilling technology continues in leaps and bounds. Skimming, burning, containing and dispersing oil are still pretty much the only options when it comes to a marine spill. The Department of Interior introduced new drilling regulations this week to strengthen response capabilities, but it doesn’t go far enough. And the closest that Congress has come to making any regulatory change is calling a hearing on the “Macondo incident.” Oil companies need to invest in research and development of new response technology as part of doing business in the offshore environment.


Understanding the baseline health of an ecosystem like the Gulf is critical in knowing whether it is thriving or merely surviving. Under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, BP is responsible for paying for restoration activities to return the Gulf ecosystem back to the baseline conditions of April 19, 2010 (the day before the explosion). This is a difficult task though, because research in the Gulf has been historically underfunded, and so we lack the information that tells us what we need to know about the health of the Gulf and how the ecosystem changes over time. In order to address impacts from the BP disaster and be more prepared in the future, we need to invest significantly in long-term monitoring in the Gulf. Long-term science and data collection should be a requirement for any areas under consideration for new offshore drilling.


When an oil spill impacts your environment and the wildlife that depends on it, they can recover more easily if they were healthy to begin with. The Gulf is a vast ecosystem with an incredible capacity to adapt to harsh conditions, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the overall health of our natural resources indefinitely. Protecting critical habitats and resources, restoring functionality to impaired natural processes such as how water flows and reducing stresses on resources should be an ongoing and concerted effort if we are serious about maintaining our way of life on the Gulf Coast. We shouldn’t wait for an oil spill to put an entire ecosystem in peril before we spend money on shoring up the resources we rely on for food, recreation and jobs.


Resilience has become a buzzword lately, but in its most traditional sense, resilience means the ability to “bounce back” from something. Hurricanes, floods, oil spills… these disasters are becoming increasingly common on the Gulf Coast and around the world. How exhausting if we are supposed to continually rebuild and “bounce back” to where we were before. You never make progress that way. LaDon Swann with Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant once suggested that resilience should mean “bouncing forward”. In order to do that, we have to think hard about what we need to do to adapt to life in a changing world, especially on the coast.

Want to learn more about the BP oil disaster and share your thoughts? Join our tweet chat on April 17 at 1pm CST. Send questions to Ocean Conservancy’s staff by using the hashtag #OurGulf.

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