Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Introduction

The greater Gulf of Mexico ecosystem contains a variety of habitats that support an amazing range of wildlife and provides Americans with abundant seafood, valuable energy resources, extraordinary outdoor recreational activities, and a rich cultural heritage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is keenly aware that a long-term, large-scale, watershed-level approach to restoration and conservation is important if we are to achieve a healthy Gulf.

This “Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed” (Next Steps) is a companion document to the Service’s 2013 “Vision for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed” (Vision). The Service developed Vision in response to the restoration challenges facing the Gulf following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Vision set the stage for an approach that considers not only the Gulf Coast, but also the entire watershed that feeds the Gulf. In Vision, the Service articulated overarching restoration and conservation strategies for sustaining fish and wildlife resources and thriving communities for future generations. We also identified geographically based high-priority focal areas and conservation strategies to help align the efforts of the Service with its partners and other stakeholders.

A biologist in shallow water plants small submerged aquatic vegetation plugs.

Utilizing “reef balls” to create fish and wildlife habitat in a shoreline protection project. Photo by Scott Williams, USFWS.

Much has happened in the Gulf in the three years since the publication of Vision. State and federal agencies and other stakeholders have made major investments in Gulf restoration, and we can see progress on some of the conservation challenges we identified in the document. Many more investments, however, will be made over the next two decades as more than $20 billion in Deepwater Horizon-related settlement funds come available for restoration work. We believe the unprecedented amount of funding and the enormity of the challenge require a level of collaboration never before seen in an ecosystem restoration effort.

The Service recognizes that in order to be an effective partner and to meet our mission — to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people — we need to provide a greater level of specificity to our recommendations. Next Steps is intended to refine and put on paper the perspectives, priorities and preferred courses of action held by the Service. It is a representation of our collective understanding and a tool for us and our partners to use in developing, promoting and securing specific restoration across the watershed.

Next Steps highlights specific courses of action for the development and implementation of conservation and restoration initiatives in each of the geographic focal areas included in the Service’s Vision. Next Steps grows out of themes and action items raised in Vision. It also reflects the constantly changing Gulf conservation landscape by updating and including refinements and additions to the earlier document, such as two new focal areas in Florida. It is a “living document” that we intend to revise in the future as conditions change and the results of choices taken become apparent. As such, Next Steps illustrates the Service’s iterative and adaptive approach to conservation and restoration.

Biologists on an eroded marsh edge look out over open water.

USFWS biologist discussing a restoration project design with partners at Anahuac NWR. Photo by Woody Woodrow, USFWS.

The actions outlined in this document are not the only options for good conservation in the Gulf. In fact, we are hopeful that by articulating our perspective, we will open the door for conversations with present and future partners focused on discovery and the development of desirable collaborations; creative problem solving; and increased transparency and coordination. We believe such dialogue will also ensure that we are leveraging our contributions in science, conservation, restoration and environmental compliance with our that of our partners. Our intention is to present quantitative targets for restoration of natural resources where we have them, and where we do not, to seek a better understanding of which restoration actions will be most broadly supported and most effectively benefit the greatest diversity of fish and wildlife. Those common restoration opportunities are important to the Service. They represent opportunities to garner broad support for restoration and further partnerships intent on far-reaching and sustainable goals, significantly increasing the probability of successful Gulf restoration outcomes.

Download the Overview of Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico.