Jobs, food, security and a unique way of life – these are among the many gifts the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem bestows on the region and our nation.
With a range of services including recreational opportunities like swimming and boating as well as fisheries, storm protection and subsistence hunting and fishing, a healthy Gulf supports pillars of the local and national economy. Restoring the Gulf to health after decades of degradation, including most recently the BP oil disaster, will ensure that we enjoy these benefits for many years to come.
The Gulf’s miles of soft sand and warm waters support a $35 billion tourist industry. Shell collecting, wildlife viewing, surfing, fishing, diving, kayaking and sailing: all these and more attract the tourists hotels, restaurants and other businesses depend on for their very survival. Tourism and recreation yield more than $9 billion in wages paid each year. Millions of visitors from around the country and around the world trek here annually for the special recreational experiences and local culture only the Gulf region can offer.
Commercial and recreational fishing industries anchor many coastal communities, generating more than $26 billion in economic activity. Bait shops, convenience stores, marinas, charter boats, seafood houses and restaurants that serve fishing industries couldn’t survive without healthy land and waters. Nearly 40 percent of the seafood harvested in the Lower 48 comes from this region alone. Recreational anglers spend upwards of $1 billion each year on fishing trips in the Gulf and billions more on food, lodging and other amenities provided by local businesses. The combined Gulf seafood and recreational fishing industries support more than 220,000 jobs.
What’s more, the Gulf’s maritime shipping industry and ports have been at the center of the nation’s commerce system for centuries. The Gulf Coast hosts two of the busiest cargo ports in the world (Houston and New Orleans) and six of the top ten shipping ports in the United States. Gulf wetlands provide storm protection to these important ports.
The Gulf is also a major producer of domestic oil and gas. Deepwater Outer Continental Shelf reserves in the northern and western Gulf are currently among the nation’s largest. There are approximately 25,000 miles of active oil and gas pipeline in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
Jeffrey Wielgus, Natural Resource Economist for Ocean Conservancy, says it is up to us to be smart about how we use all these gifts:
"An enormous number of uses of the Gulf's resources have the potential to benefit society, but also the potential to damage this great asset. A key word is ‘trade-offs.’ In our work, we look at gains and losses, because by using resources properly society can make the most of the ocean's gifts, not only in the short term, but also for future generations."
Clearly, we need a comprehensive Gulf ecosystem restoration plan that takes this into consideration to protect and strengthen its gifts into the future.
Long-term research and monitoring must also sit at the heart of that plan, so that we can better understand changes in the ecosystem and develop solutions. Ocean Conservancy's proposal calls for a well-funded and robust science program that will provide research and monitoring to guide the design, selection and evaluation of restoration projects. This program provides a critical role in helping us evaluate the effectiveness of projects over time and allow us to adapt our management and restoration strategies as new information becomes available. And, perhaps most importantly, it will allow us to tell more success stories -- to know not just when important habitats and valuable species are threatened, but when they are on the road to recovery.
To truly take the pulse of the Gulf, strong community involvement is essential. Citizen volunteers could assist in observations and data gathering, and communities with a long history in the region should be consulted for traditional ecological knowledge. In turn, a research and monitoring program would provide new economic opportunities for people who live and work in the region.
For both ecosystem and economic health, we cannot continue to let the Gulf suffer as it has in recent decades. Because pillars of the regional economy -- tourism, energy, recreational fishing and the seafood industry – prosper only when the gifts from the Gulf support them.
Learn how you can help us restore the Gulf of Mexico and other special places across our ocean.
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Ocean Conservancy's Chris Dorsett answers five questions about NOAA's fisheries management plans.