Some of the fastest growing populations in the United States are located in the Gulf Coast region. The population size in the Gulf states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas is approximately 56 million, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.
Growth in coastal populations is expected to put additional pressure on coastal and marine environments, including wildlife and water quality. In addition, rising sea levels, land subsidence and episodic storm events will also challenge human communities along the Gulf Coast.
If we hope to meet the future resource demands of a growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us, we must put the ocean at the center of what we do. The ocean provides us with food, energy, transportation, carbon storage and more—it is truly our greatest natural resource.
But the Gulf is still recovering from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster as well as decades of ecosystem decline. Restoring this region to health is the only way to ensure that we can enjoy its many benefits for generations to come.
That task lies in the hands of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which just released its “Initial Comprehensive Plan: Restoring the Gulf Coast’s Ecosystem and Economy.” This plan is intended to serve as a framework to implement a coordinated, Gulf-wide restoration effort using RESTORE Act funding. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something great for the Gulf.
The Gulf Council’s plan is another small but important step forward in Gulf recovery, but we aren’t there yet.
Have you seen the BP commercials about the company taking responsibility for the worst oil disaster in U.S. history? I for one usually see at least one every week. That’s because for the past three years, the company has spent hundreds of millions on advertising trying to clean up their image. But unfortunately, BP hasn’t been as diligent about spending money to actually clean up the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster they claim to be taking responsibility for.
Even as their advertisements continue to run on air, BP is now fighting its own settlement and refusing to provide much-needed funding to the people impacted by the disaster and to restoration efforts critical to bring back the health of Gulf ecosystems and marine life.
Why? Because BP claims that the people who lost their jobs and their way of life are trying to scam the company. This despite the fact that while BP makes about $4 billion in profit every three months, many people who lost their livelihoods have waited more than three years to receive compensation for their losses.
Instead of taking responsibility for the oil disaster in the Gulf and all of the repercussions to the people and wildlife who call the Gulf region home, BP is going out of its way to shirk responsibility for paying economic claims they already agreed to in court.
A scientist measures a juvenile tiger shark during a population survey. Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy
More than 70 species of shark occur in the Gulf of Mexico and along the U.S. Atlantic coast. Of those, we catch over a dozen large and small coastal species during the bottom longline population survey I’m participating in with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Here are five of the species we commonly spot:
Atlantic Sharpnose Shark This small shark is the most commonly caught species during our survey because it is ubiquitous in this region. In the right depths, it is not uncommon for us to catch around 50 of these small sharks per set of 100 hooks.
Population status: Due to their abundance in the western North Atlantic, their population status is not considered to be of great concern. Apart from humans, Atlantic sharpnose sharks also have other, larger sharks to fear as predators.
Hammerhead shark caught for a population survey. Photo: Claudia Friess / Ocean Conservancy
While most people out on the water are trying to avoid sharks, I’m on a boat that’s looking for them. We’re trying to find out which shark species are doing well and which ones are in trouble.
The answer: it’s complicated. But one important piece of evidence is the information collected on scientific surveys of population abundance, like the one I’m on right now.
It’s my third year as a volunteer on the science crew with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I am currently on the NOAA ship OREGON II, a 170-foot research vessel with its home port in Pascagoula, Miss.
This is the first leg of the annual shark and red snapper bottom longline survey. The survey is conducted in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico from South Texas to the Florida Keys and along the East Coast up to Cape Hatteras, N.C. That’s a total of four legs lasting two weeks each.
Imagine if all of the animals throughout the entire state of Connecticut left or died. This is what happens every year in the Gulf of Mexico. The size of the dead zone varies—sometimes it’s as big as New Jersey or only the size of Rhode Island, but the problem always persists.
Researchers from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium just spent a week measuring dissolved oxygen concentrations off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas to determine how big the dead zone is this year. And they found that it is about 5,800 square miles, or roughly the size of the state of Connecticut.
This area is called “the dead zone” because dissolved oxygen levels are too low to support life. Animals that can move out of the area, like fish and shrimp, will leave, and animals that can’t, like brittle stars and mussels, will become stressed and eventually die.