E&E: Advocates press for restoration beyond the shoreline

Annie Snider, E&E reporter
Published: Monday, August 25, 2014

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, as its name suggests, in
the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico. But even though the bluewater
ecosystem bore the brunt of the damage, projects to restore habitat and
species there have not done well in the competition for funding so far.

To be sure, only a fraction of the restoration dollars related to the
spill that experts anticipate will eventually be available have been
put up for grabs so far, and the bluewater is likely to be a major
recipient of funding under the Oil Pollution Act to restore damage
directly related to the spill.

Still, hundreds of millions of dollars stemming from the gusher has
already been awarded, but just one project dealing with the deepwater
environment has received funding, according to Libby Fetherston, an
Ocean Conservancy staffer who strategizes about restoration funding.

“There’s a lot we’re working with in the terrestrial environment and
estuaries along the shoreline of the five affected Gulf Coast states,
but there’s not a lot of discussion about what happens once you get
beyond the shore,” Fetherston said. “The Gulf of Mexico is a whole
entity, and looking only at the coastline where you can put your hands
in the dirt and physically restore things is really only looking at
half of the puzzle.”

Fetherston’s group released a slick booklet Friday to explain what
restoration could look like in the bluewater and why it matters.

For instance, bluefin tuna, which have been shown to be sensitive to
the hydrocarbons found in crude oil, are often accidentally caught by
commercial fishermen aiming to snag yellowfin tuna or swordfish
(Greenwire, March 24).

Ocean Conservancy estimates that 423 bluefin are thrown back dead each
year after being snagged from pelagic long-line fishery boats in the
Gulf. All those fish could be saved, the group argues, if those lines
were switched out for new, experimental gear.

Another idea hunting for funding: mapping habitat on the Gulf’s
seafloor.

“Knowing about the different habitats, how productive they are, what is
living on them, is really an important first step toward understanding
how to do restoration,” Fetherston said. “Maybe we can’t go down and
clean the corals around the Macondo wellhead, but maybe we can protect
similar corals from damage, from drilling, but we don’t know where
those are.”

Ocean Conservancy’s booklet was issued one day after the federal-state
panel charged with overseeing Clean Water Act fines being delivered to
the Gulf put out its first call for project proposals (E&ENews PM, Aug.
21).

Part of the challenge for restoration advocates is determining which
funding stream to propose which projects for in order to get the most
bang for the buck and avoid duplication. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem
Restoration Council, made up of Gulf State and federal government
officials, is responsible for managing the 30 percent of Clean Water
Act civil fines sent back to the Gulf for comprehensive restoration.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, meanwhile, is charged with
granting $2.5 billion in criminal fines related to the spill for
restoration, with slightly different goals and processes. And then
there’s the yet-to-be-determined funding to restore direct damage under
the Oil Pollution Act.

The lack of a settlement in the government’s case against BP PLC poses
some major challenges for restoration advocates. The fact that the case
is ongoing means not only that the total amount of money available for
restoration under the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act remains
unknown, but also that scientific information about the spill’s impacts
is kept under wraps.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “has been
impressively mum,” Fetherston said. “So it’s tricky for me to say we
know this was damaged and this is how you should replace it.”

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