Gulf of Mexico

Restoring an Ecosystem and a Way of Life in the Gulf of Mexico

If you wander away from the funky New Orleans vibe and make your way to the more secluded areas along the Gulf coast, you may happen upon a lone figure tromping childlike through the muddy marsh.  

You may see her watching hopefully to catch a glimpse of crabs and other critters skittering in the shallow water. You may see her deeply inhaling the thick salty air. You may see her stand – face to the wind – and smile, feeling grateful and energized.

This is how Bethany Kraft unwinds. And it’s just one of the many reasons why she cares so much about protecting the Gulf of Mexico.  

As Deputy Director for Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico Program, Bethany spends her days fighting to protect one of the country’s greatest national treasures – from marine life to coastal habitat and communities that have called the Gulf of Mexico home for generations.

A lifetime on the Gulf

As a child growing up outside of San Antonio, Texas, Bethany spent most family vacations hiking and camping throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

Her father, a diehard fisherman, helped instill a love of the outdoors in his children, but it wasn’t until Bethany went to college that she began to think about nature as more than just pretty places to visit.  A course in natural resource economics helped her understand just how much people depend on natural resources for food, water, fuel, livelihoods and much more.

“Nowhere is that connection more clear than in the Gulf of Mexico,” Bethany says. “The health of our economy is tied to the health of our natural resources – and that has an impact not only in the Gulf region, but for the entire United States.”

She’s quick to point out a fact that few people may be aware of – if you take the gross domestic product of the five states that border the Gulf of Mexico, together they would be the seventh largest economy in the world. So, we all have an interest in making sure that the Gulf region continues to thrive.

Deepwater Horizon and a string of challenges for the Gulf

Unfortunately, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster on April 20, 2010 was a significant setback for the Gulf of Mexico economy, wildlife and communities. But it did serve as a wake up call for the nation to start better conserving the valuable resources the Gulf provides.

In fact, the oil spill is only one strand in a string of challenges that the Gulf has been facing. For decades the Gulf has suffered:

  • the loss and degradation of wetlands and barrier islands,
  • economic, social and environmental impacts from "dead zones" in the Northern Gulf,
  • overfishing and lost fishing productivity, and
  • challenges brought on by the development pressures as well as natural disasters

“The oil spill emphasized the importance of protecting the resources we still have,” Bethany says. “The stronger we can make our coast and the more resilient we can make our communities, the more buffers we have to conserve and maintain our natural resources in the Gulf.”

Ocean Conservancy has been working on fisheries and sustainable fishing in the Gulf of Mexico for more than two decades. “After the oil disaster, it was clear that we were facing a critical juncture in the Gulf’s future," she says, “so Ocean Conservancy made an even deeper investment.”

Restoring the Gulf on multiple fronts

For Ocean Conservancy, successful restoration in the Gulf means:

  • Protection of our cultural and natural heritage,
  • increased economic opportunities,
  • enhanced recreational opportunities,
  • slowing the rate of land loss, and
  • sustaining the entire ecosystem.

There are two main processes unfolding to support that restoration.

The first is the National Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) restoration planning process, which directly addresses damages that resulted from the BP oil spill. This process will bring the Gulf back to where it was before the oil disaster occurred. The second, parallel process, is passing the RESTORE Act, which could bring billions of dollars of Clean Water Act fine money to the Gulf region to address system-wide degradation.

“It’s not enough to restore us back to April 19th,” says Bethany. “We need to address the long-term causes of degradation that have made us more susceptible to disasters over the years, and this money will allow us to do that, so we’re working hard to get that legislation passed.”

After so many hours spent sloshing through the marshy waters, with only the birds and fish for company, Bethany feels a deep connection to this place where the land and water come together. Now it’s time for the rest of us to come together as well.

"In the United States, we have a history of taking the impossible and making it happen," she says. "We need to adopt the attitude that we are smart enough and thoughtful enough to find solutions to heal and restore the Gulf of Mexico. I honestly believe we can do it."

"We need money to do it – and we need the collective political will of the public and our leaders, based on the recognition that the Gulf of Mexico is a really a national treasure worth protecting. If we can get those two elements working we can accomplish anything."

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