Gulf of Mexico RESTORE Act public meeting kicks off in Tampa

06/25/13 Samuel Johnson
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It’s been more than three years since the Deepwater Horizon spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The states along the Gulf are poised to rebuild thanks in part to their membership in the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, GOMA. In Tampa at the 8th annual meeting of GOMA more than 200 business people and government employees are sharing ideas about the recovery efforts.

In 2012 the US Congress passed the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies of the Gulf States Act, or RESTORE Act. A section of the Act incorporates a scientific program under the direction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, in consultation with US Fish and Wildlife Services. The US Treasury still needs to pass regulations before any monies can flow to the agencies involved. Roger Helm, senior scientist with US Fish and Wildlife Services, said the estimated $1 billion already collected is overshadowed by the potential of the BP settlement.

”Then the bigger potential pot of money is with BP (British Petroleum). BP is litigating, however, their civil settlement. So that litigation, you know, could be done at any point. Of course, people can appeal litigations. So who knows exactly what's going to happen on that. One can speculate on, you know, what might happen. But I don't think it's very useful because; who knows?”

Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries, is part of an oversight board which ensures the RESTORE Act science program stays on track. He sees the RESTORE Act as one of the greatest opportunities on the planet for ecosystem science. Merrick said international collaboration is also a unique opportunity.

”Right now in talking with internal council they are comfortable with us working with, say, Mexican researchers. Going the other way, since it's so much further into the Carribean it may not be appropriate. But definitely working with Mexico is important. And they have some experience they can bring from oil spills that occurred and the recovery that occurred off the coast of Mexico as well. So we would like to benefit from that.”

The public meetings organized by the Gulf of Mexico Alliance are a forum for businesses to interact with other businesses as well as governmental agencies. Russ Beard, acting director for the NOAA science program, says the overall purpose for NOAA is to double check the priorities.

”because it's really a vetting process. Have we captured the essence of what has been done over the last 3 to 4 years in the Gulf of Mexico in terms of science and the science gaps? Have we identified them correctly; what are we missing? And if are missing them can you identify them for us?”

The economic and financial wonks are not the only scholars involved in the RESTORE Act. There is a plethora of scientists involved. Shelby Walker, associate program director for the NOAA RESTORE Act science program, says the fishing industry is the springboard for a comprehensive study of the Gulf’s ecosystem.

”We have been mandated by the Restore Act to pull together a program that looks at the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem, he fish stocks, the fish habitats and the fishing industries in the Gulf of Mexico. And so, we're really planning our science and program around that endeavor. So our intent is really with this program is to try to formulate a really more holistic understanding of what's going on in the Gulf ecosystem; which will provide a lot of that fundamental information that you need to for successful restoration and management of the ecosystem at large.”

Mark Fonseca, senior ecologist for CSA Ocean Sciences Inc and former NOAA employee, is one of the many civilian businessmen at the public meeting. Fonseca says the blend of idealism and commerce motivates him and his company to get involved.

So we'd like to get back to that (scientific study) and understand what are the actual habitats and how they function. They could be impacted by these kinds of events. And then the other half of that is actually physically doing restoration. We do a lot of seagrass, oyster, mangrove restoration and projects. So, actually making a physical difference.”

The Gulf of Mexico Alliance has two more days of meetings scheduled.

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