Nancy Rabelais is still at it. She deserves awards not just for her research on the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but also for her enthused persistence for about the last 30 years. She has monitored the Dead Zone, warned relentlessly about it, pushed hard for corrective action, while the Dead Zone continues to recur every year. In fact, she just won the Heinz Award and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Ketchum Award honoring her extraordinary effort and ability.
The Dead Zone, a result of runoff of fertilizers from the endless cropland of the immense Mississippi watershed, is, of course, just one of the discouraging stresses that have largely wrecked the Gulf Coast. Fish have been overfished, wetlands lost, barrier islands eroded, estuarine habitats degraded, pipelines laid, shipping channels dug, levees built, freshwater flow diverted – and then the ecosystem was hit first by Katrina and then by the pollution from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
What a test of resilience, for both a natural ecosystem and for the affected human communities.
In response to all of this, The Gulf Coast Restoration Task Force has just published its report, and it’s a report to want to believe in. The Task Force, established by Presidential Executive Order, was composed of representatives from the five Gulf States and from 11 Federal Agencies. The group listened to everyone – state and federal agencies, tribes, communities, academics, local government, business and industry, NGOs.
The Task Force report insists on the integration of the coastal human communities as a critical part of the ecosystem. It recognizes that waiting for scientific certainly is inappropriate, and that adaptive management should guide us through the restoration efforts. It calls for extensive monitoring and modelling by scientists, which is what they do best. It imagines a restored ecosystem, with improved water quality, protected coastal resources, sustainable fisheries, and enhanced community resilience.
If it is actually possible to restore a large-scale ecosystem, the Gulf Coast should be an excellent place to try. As always, the needed ingredients are knowledge, ability, incentive, cooperation, funds, and political will. Challenging, to say the least.
Of course it is a long-term plan, but nothing in the proposal is impossible. Much of it should have started sooner, in response to Rabelais’ work, and as a result of Katrina’s impact. Maybe this time it will become reality.
High hopes, yes. Based on past practices, we should limit our expectations.
But this is a chance, a rare opportunity to do the right thing. Let’s do this. And show ourselves and the world that it can be done, that large ecosystems can be restored to something that might be sustainable. They don’t need to deteriorate to sterility and oblivion.