Guest commentary: Habitat mapping crucial for Gulf of Mexico’s marine ecosystem _lowres

McKnight

Gulf fishing is the best it has been in decades. But five years ago, as one of the worst man-made disasters unfolded off Venice, the future of Gulf fishing appeared uncertain. As the fifth anniversary of the B P Deepwater Horizon disaster passes, things appear brighter as the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council begins considering 50 projects that will address comprehensive Gulf restoration.

The Restoration Council, established by the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act of 2011, is composed of trustees from the five Gulf states, the Department of Agriculture, the Army, Homeland Security and the EPA. Tasked with administering Clean Water Act civil penalty fines paid by those responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Restoration Council trustees are expected to address comprehensive Gulf restoration from the beach to the edge of U.S. territorial waters, about 200 miles offshore.

As the council convenes, I urge managers to place special consideration on a $22.4 million project that dedicates $13 million to habitat mapping. The project represents the first step toward providing a complete and accurate inventory of the Gulf of Mexico’s marine habitats and would alleviate the uncertainty our fisheries faced back in 2010. The project will give scientists a better understanding of the resources damaged, and it provides a pathway to restore the Gulf, while building a health baseline if, God forbid, an event like the Deepwater Horizon were ever to occur again.

For me, comprehensive Gulf restoration is critical and it is personal. As a Venice charter boat captain and a then-sitting member of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, I had a front-row seat to the disaster. During the spill, I found myself chartered by journalists, concerned stakeholders and Gulf decision-makers chasing oil and not the fish we should have been. When I tied off after a day of unpleasant sightseeing, I spent my evenings as a fishery management council member doing what I could to manage the health of the Gulf and its fish.

The resounding questions I was asked in my capacity as a captain and a council member were the same: “What do you think was damaged out there, and what do you think it will do to fish populations?” The answers to these questions are the same now as they were then: “We don’t know.”

Unfortunately, though fishery managers and scientists have been calling for better habitat maps for years, a lack of funding has blocked the possibilities of realizing a comprehensive habitat mapping project. With the Transocean Clean Water Act civil penalties beginning to fund restoration proposals, the $13 million habitat mapping project, a small portion of the suite of proposals that will receive the roughly $165 million to be funded, has the real possibility of providing a foundational and transformative means to realize comprehensive Gulf ecosystem restoration.

Comprehensive habitat mapping is a critical component to gauge the health and restoration of the Gulf and to improve the accuracy and the quality of fish population assessments. Without mapping, answering the questions “What do you think was damaged out there, and what do you think it will do to fish populations?” will remain a “We don’t know.” Moreover, without a detailed picture of the Gulf’s marine ecosystems, the restoration dollars flowing into the Gulf risk being wasted.

Tracking the Gulf’s health and assessing fisheries stocks is inherently a process of making estimates according to the best information and science available. But, with a dramatic lack of mapped habitats, this makes the jobs of scientists and managers a challenging and near impossible endeavor with outdated and incomplete habitat information.

From the Gulf’s deepwater reefs to its affected wetlands, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council has a fundamental opportunity to change how we assess the health of one of our nation’s busiest and most productive marine environments, while revolutionizing how we manage and protect our living marine resources.

As the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council begins its funding deliberations, it has a number of tough decisions to make as it considers the 50 worthy proposals before it. As one who spends his life making a living from the Gulf, I never again want to face the uncertainty that came with the BP spill. The Restoration Council was created to address the years of abuse the Gulf suffered before and during the spill and to ensure that civil penalties are spent to rectify those past transgressions. I hold Restoration Council officials to this challenge and their promise of comprehensive restoration. The habitat mapping funding is the first step toward realizing this.

Damon McKnight is a charter boat captain in Venice.