Do you know the Gulf of Mexico? Do you really know the wildlife that lives in its waters or how we use its resources—for better or worse—to support our economy?
I thought I had a grasp on this before beginning a multi-year project that mapped important things in the Gulf. Now that the project is finished, I know there’s even more to see than I knew about! Ocean Conservancy’s new tool, “The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas,” can help you get a better view of the Gulf too.
The Gulf is a complex ecosystem full of an amazing diversity of wildlife and an abundance of resources. We need to know what lives in it and where it can all be found so we can protect, conserve and restore this beautiful natural treasure.
The atlas is a unique collection of 54 maps and related descriptions that illustrate and describe where you will find many invertebrates, fish, birds and marine mammals in the Gulf. Among many other species, you can learn more about sperm whales, whale sharks, blue crabs (see map above) and black skimmers.
You can look at the physical characteristics, habitats and environmental stressors in the Gulf. Sea surface currents, bottom sediments, hurricane track density and all of the known locations of coral are shown in the atlas.
You will also be able to see how people use the Gulf for recreational fishing, shrimp trawling and major oil and gas development. The areas set aside for coastal and marine protection have been included as well. Continue reading »
credit — NOAA
Restoring the environment is a lot like planning what to cook. A coral reef restoration project and a pie both have a recipe for success. Using a good plan, or recipe, helps to create a product we can’t possibly pull off by ourselves. My latest culinary triumph, a delicious (if I do say so myself) chocolate silk pie made from a recipe featured in a cooking magazine, looked tantalizing, but frighteningly labor intensive. Because it had a lot of detailed steps, I was nervous about making a mistake and ruining some pretty expensive ingredients, but in the end I took the plunge. Unfortunately, the RESTORE Act Council has not taken the plunge into creating a detailed recipe for restoration of the Gulf of Mexico. It is still missing some important ingredients.
Developing a comprehensive restoration plan for the Gulf of Mexico is not unlike baking a chocolate silk pie. It’s complicated. There are a lot of steps, the ingredients and the sequence you incorporate them matters, and the preparation is just as important as the baking itself. I couldn’t just go to the Piggly Wiggly and throw stuff in the cart. Leaving out key ingredients is the surest way to sorrow. You avoid disaster by having a detailed plan. If you pay attention to the recipe and ensure that you have everything you need on hand, you can tackle pretty much anything and be reasonably confident of an edible outcome.
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As most ocean lovers know, June 1 marks the official start of hurricane season. With torrential rains, storm surges and substantial winds, hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage to coastlines and several hundred miles inland, but you can increase your chances of safety by being prepared.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. The ingredients for a hurricane include a pre-existing weather disturbance, warm tropical oceans, moisture and relatively light winds. If the right conditions persist long enough, they can combine to produce the violent winds, incredible waves, torrential rains and floods we associate with hurricanes.
Hurricanes are an intense tropical weather system with well-defined circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher. Major hurricanes have maximum sustained winds of 111 miles per hour or higher, which corresponds to Category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Here’s an animation that illustrates wind damage associated with increasing hurricane intensity.
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Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) are one of the Gulf of Mexico’s signature fish. They are extremely popular among recreational fishermen and a prized offering at restaurants and seafood markets, as well as a top predator in the Gulf ecosystem. Recently there has been a great deal of debate about the health and management of this important fish. Ocean Conservancy, along with Pew Charitable Trusts, has released a report about the law that is saving American fisheries, including red snapper. Here are few handy facts about this iconic fish:
- Red snapper can grow to about 40 inches, weigh up to 50 pounds and live more than 50 years.
- Red snapper begin to reproduce when they are about two years old, spawning from May to October along rocky ledges or coral reefs.
- Fertilized eggs float on the surface and hatch within a day. Only a month later, the young fish settle out of the water column in shallow waters, and as they get older, they move to structured habitat where they will mature and eventually move to the deeper waters of the Gulf. Continue reading »
Important questions about the impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster still linger. Some effects could go undetected for years. To fully restore the Gulf, and to make sure the Gulf and its people are recovering, we need to establish a long-term monitoring and research program. While we wait for confidential government studies to become public, little clues are emerging that give us insight into which species were injured and what this might mean for the Gulf ecosystem.
A study reported in Environmental Science and Technology tells us that one species to keep an eye on is the Gulf killifish. Through their ongoing research, the authors (Dubansky et al., 2013) determined that killifish from oil-contaminated marshes in Louisiana were impacted by the disaster. Specifically, they collected eggs from oiled and non-oiled sites before and after the disaster and raised them in a lab. The eggs from oiled sites took longer to hatch than eggs from non-oiled sites. When the late eggs did hatch, the larval fish were smaller and more likely to have heart defects than those from non-oiled sites. This indicates that the developing fish will not be able to survive and reproduce as well as eggs from non-oiled sites.
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Bayou La Batre, Alabama
This week, over $600 million in early restoration projects were announced by states in the Gulf of Mexico. This is BP money that is specifically to be used to address the damage caused by the oil disaster. Some of the projects announced this week, like the oyster reef restoration project in Alabama, and many projects in Louisiana, are likely to be supported by the public and to be appropriate uses of Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) funding. Unfortunately, the public can’t make that determination without access to more information.
We are disappointed to see these projects announced without the inclusion of any sort of environmental or overarching analysis to provide transparency or opportunities for public involvement, not to mention provide the legal basis and policy guidance for addressing the injury caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
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Three years ago, on April 20, the lives of 11 men were cut short as a rig most of us had never heard of exploded, creating a fiery hell on the surface of the ocean and wreaking 87 days of havoc beneath the surface as oil spewed uncontrolled into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
That spring and summer, as families of the 11 men mourned and the world watched live feeds of the wellhead blowing millions of barrels of oil into the waters we rely on for our food and our livelihoods. We saw images of oiled pelicans and birds washed up on shore. We saw vast amounts of a dispersant known as Corexit sprayed on the surface and at depth to make the oil “disappear” and, ostensibly, prevent a greater disaster on shore. We flew over blue-green water marked with long streaks of orange-colored dispersed oil and watched dolphins weave in an out of those toxic ribbons.
As we look forward to opportunities that arise for restoration and recovery from this tragedy, we must not forget the size of this disaster. We have one Gulf and one chance to do this right. This opportunity for restoration comes at a dear price and it is up to all of us to honor the lives lost by restoring the resources that make life on the Gulf possible.
So where are we three years on? There has been some progress in the last three years that we should recognize and celebrate, but there is still a lot of work to do.
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