Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Background

When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana on April 20, 2010, the Service’s response was robust and included taking on myriad responsibilities, incident command work, wildlife reconnaissance and recovery, sensitive habitat and endangered species protection, finance and other administrative tasks, safety and more. But the Service has been active in the Gulf watershed for years; we see ourselves as one of the many stakeholders in Gulf restoration, and we are thoroughly engaged within the communities and landscapes of the Gulf. For example, the Service has been managing millions of acres on 235 national wildlife refuges (NWRs) in the Gulf watershed, with the 45 located in the Gulf Coast states covering more than 2.15 million acres of managed lands alone. In fact, the first NWR established anywhere was located in the Gulf states with the establishment of Pelican Island NWR in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1903. The first refuge on the Gulf Coast itself followed soon afterwards with the establishment of Breton Island Reservation (now Breton NWR) to protect important bird-nesting islands located off the coast of Louisiana. Additionally, the Service has field and regional representation in all 31 states in the Gulf of Mexico watershed. Throughout the watershed, the Service has long provided a combination of planning and on-the-ground contributions to natural resource protection and conservation.

NRDA

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill injured lands managed by the Service throughout the Gulf (e.g., Bon Secour, St. Vincent, Grand Bay, Delta, Breton, Big Branch Marsh and McFaddin NWRs). The Service seeks to restore federal lands at the locations where injury occurred while considering approaches that provide coastal resiliency and sustainability. If restoration cannot be implemented at these sites, the Service will look to other federally managed lands in the Gulf of Mexico watershed. Through NRDAR, emphasis will be placed on restoring habitat such as wetlands, dunes and beaches, submerged aquatic vegetation and barrier islands located on federal lands.

Grey colored dead tree trunks emerge from open water.

Dead swamp in Louisiana along North Lake Boudreaux. Photo by USFWS.

Similarly, signs of serious ecosystem degradation had been documented in the Gulf of Mexico watershed well before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. For decades, countless stressors altered and degraded the Gulf ecosystem. The Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently calculated that the Gulf of Mexico coastal region overall experienced a net wetland loss of 257,150 acres in just the five years between 2004 and 2009. In fact, the swamps and marshes of coastal Louisiana are among the nation’s most fragile. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) trend analyses from 1985 to 2010 show a wetland loss rate that, if it were to occur at a constant rate, would equate to Louisiana losing an area the size of one football field per hour. The degradation of this monumentally important watershed became even worse, however, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A biologist in uniform kneels next to a gull carcass to read numbers from a handheld device.

USFWS biologist records a gull carcass on Gaillard Island near Mobile, Alabama, during Deepwater Horizon recovery efforts. Photo by Michael Assenmacher, USFWS.

Between 2011 and 2017, approximately $2 billion has been invested in Gulf restoration efforts through money dedicated to that purpose by civil and criminal settlements reached with the parties responsible for the 2010 disaster. The Service’s role in the Gulf has continued through our membership in, and involvement with, the key groups and processes overseeing many of these funds. A prime example of this is the role the Service plays in the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) process. The U.S. Department of the Interior (Department) is designated as the Lead Administrative Trustee on the Deepwater Horizon NRDAR Trustee Council. The Service’s Southeast Regional Director, as the Authorized Official for the Department, represents the trusteeship interests of the Secretary of the Department of the Interior in conducting the work of the Trustee Council.

The Trustee Council, which includes representatives of three other federal agencies and five Gulf Coast states, began its work by first assessing the injury caused by the oil spill to natural resources and the services they provide, and then planning and implementing restoration projects based on information gleaned from the injury assessment. The Service led a large part of the injury assessment since 2010 and has invested millions of dollars quantifying injuries to Service trust resources (migratory birds, listed species, etc.). By working with our co-trustees to fully describe these injuries, we are able to plan and implement strategies and projects to restore injured resources to the condition they would have been had the oil spill not occurred. Since 2012, the Service has already led the Trustees’ effort to work with the public to develop and finalize five restoration plans that together include 65 projects designed to restore identified injuries. These projects have a combined cost of approximately $868 million to date.

An employee in uniform and gloves prods a tar ball that washed up on the beach with a stick.

Tar balls of weathered oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on the beach at Bon Secour NWR. Photo by Lillian Falco, USFWS.

In late 2012 and early 2013, settlements and other Deepwater Horizon-related agreements with parties responsible for the oil spill directed a total of $2.544 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Federation (NFWF) to fund projects benefiting the natural resources of the Gulf Coast that were impacted. They also directed $500 million to go to the National Academy of Sciences to develop a program focused on enhancing oil system safety, human health and environmental resources. The Service serves on the advisory boards for NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund and the science program, as well as provides technical assistance and environmental clearances for projects they fund. The Service also plays an important role with respect to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Program, which is to receive $100 million as part of the 2013 settlement with one of the responsible parties. The Service reviews proposals and recommends projects for the NAWCA Program focused on wetlands restoration and conservation in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and then administers those projects chosen for funding by the North American Wetlands Conservation Council. By the end of 2016, NFWF had invested approximately $870 million, and the NAWCA Program had invested approximately $56.5 million, in projects supporting the restoration of the Gulf watershed.

Another major funding process involving the Department through which the Service plays a key role is the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE Council), a federal entity created by the 2012 Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act). The RESTORE Council oversees part of a trust fund that will receive 80 percent of the civil and administrative penalties paid to the federal government under the Clean Water Act by all the parties responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In 2016, $4.4 billion was directed to the trust fund through a criminal settlement with one of the responsible parties; the RESTORE Council has responsibilities with respect to 60 percent of these funds. The Department’s Secretary is one of six federal members, and the Service’s Southeast Regional Director acts as the Secretary’s representative, on the body. The Service is also one of four Department bureaus that play significant roles in advising the Department on restoration priorities and in working collaboratively with other RESTORE Council members to achieve restoration and conservation goals. To date, the RESTORE Council has invested approximately $156 million in Gulf restoration projects.

Gulf restoration received a significant boost when the presiding judge gave final approval on April 4, 2016, to a global legal settlement with BP, the party primarily responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The settlement adds billions of dollars to state and federal efforts over the next two decades to rehabilitate and improve the natural resources of the Gulf region. Given the scope and scale of what is possible with all of this funding support, the Service acknowledges that this is the time to reassess conservation and restoration needs, build upon existing successful efforts to address ongoing needs, and generate fresh ideas and innovative approaches. With Next Steps, the Service is articulating its recommendations for moving forward with Gulf restoration into the future.

$2 Billion Invested in Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill-Related Gulf Conservation and Restoration Projects (April 2010 - January 2017) - $868 million invested in Gulf restoration projects through NRDA - $156.6 million invested in Gulf restoration projects through the RESTORE Council - 870 million invested in Gulf restoration projects through NFWF - 56.5 million invested in Gulf restoration projects (in the United States) through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Program - 20 million invested in Supplemental Environmental Projects focused on land acquisition and habitat protection through a civil settlement with MOEX Offshore 2007 LLC (one of the responsible parties)

Experience has taught us that the most durable solutions are cooperative ones, and working in the Gulf watershed is no exception. This means, in part, that we must leverage and promote existing partnerships as well as seek out and develop new and nontraditional ones to more effectively design, deliver and monitor our efforts. We will work with, and welcome input from, all interested parties in order to assess and improve our efforts and identify new opportunities.

To effectively maximize outcomes and ensure that our collective endeavors are connected over time and across the entire watershed, we will build on existing conservation efforts by working with individuals, organizations, federal agencies and governments, many who are involved in both informal and formal partnerships such as the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, Fish Habitat Partnerships, National Estuary Programs, Beneficial Uses Groups, and the Partnership for Gulf Coast Land Conservation. These partnerships (and many others) help inform the many federal and state representatives who also serve as trustees on the Deepwater Horizon NRDAR Trustee Implementation Groups and as members of the RESTORE Council. This interwoven network of relationships and partners will strengthen the ecological foundation of Gulf-wide restoration across the different restoration funding opportunities.

A group of four biologists from different conservation agencies inspect a net in a stream.

Service biologists examining a seine net with partners from other agencies. Photo by Brian Jonkers, USFWS.

Projects will necessarily cross many governmental and institutional boundaries, so collaboration and leadership among all involved is essential. Pursuing actions in partnership is likely to lead to consistency in approaches, increased efficiencies, broader consensus, and therefore stronger restoration outcomes than those achieved through independent, uncoordinated processes. Greater restoration success will also result from using and supporting the best available science throughout the planning and implementation of Gulf restoration efforts.

The Service is committed to using and supporting the best available science. This commitment will guide our understanding of how fish and wildlife are connected to other natural, as well as cultural and economic, resources. Solid science will also make clear the roles fish and wildlife play within different geographic areas and across the Gulf watershed as a whole and provide a foundation to help us understand the best use of available restoration investments to achieve sustainable outcomes. Throughout the planning and implementation of Gulf restoration efforts, we cannot overemphasize the need for all stakeholders to: 1) use and advance the collection of the best empirical data; and 2) develop, utilize and adaptively refine over time through targeted monitoring the best science-based decision-support tools, such as the Gulf Coast Vulnerability Assessment, the Sea Level Rise Affecting Marshes Model, and the Conservation Design and associated Blueprint efforts of LCCs.

Gulf Coast Vulnerability Assessment (GCVA)

The four LCCs initiated an effort to evaluate the effects of climate change, sea level rise, and urbanization on four Gulf coastal ecosystems and 11 species that depend on them. The GCVA used an expert opinion approach to qualitatively assess the vulnerability of each and identified management strategies for them. The range in vulnerability for species was fairly wide, with blue crab being the least vulnerable and Kemp’s ridley sea turtle being the most vulnerable. Ecosystem vulnerability across the four systems differed less than it did for species, with mangroves being the least vulnerable and tidal emergent marsh being the most vulnerable. The GCVA received support/guidance from many partners, including the Service, USGS, NOAA, the Northern Gulf Institute, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, and the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

An adult sea turtle on a beach.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo by Adrienne McCracken, USFWS.

Science excellence and its application to adaptive management of natural resources are hallmarks of the Service. We continually seek to be strategic, efficient, accountable and adaptive by coordinating and collectively pursuing science-based conservation planning, design and monitoring. Because management of natural systems is not always predictable, especially one as large and complex as the Gulf, having specific and measurable biological objectives that summarize existing scientific knowledge and present testable hypotheses is essential for effective restoration planning. As the objectives are empirically tested and refined over time through implementation of adaptive management, we will be able to measure progress and continually refine our approaches toward our goal of a healthy Gulf ecosystem. This is the fundamental approach underlying the Service’s Vision, and now, Next Steps.

A close up shot of a pelicans face.

Brown pelican. Photo by Woody Woodrow, USFWS.

One example of the Service’s commitment to both partnerships and science-based restoration can be found in our current effort to compile existing biological objectives from across the Gulf Coast. These biological objectives (i.e., population objectives and the associated habitat objectives needed to meet them) have been previously established through collaborative planning processes facilitated by Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, LCCs, and Recovery Teams, among others. These objectives define the “how much,” “how much more,” and “where” of the required conservation and restoration action needed to sustain species at desired levels. To date, most efforts to define quantifiable objectives have focused on birds through the science and coordination capacities of the various Migratory Bird Joint Ventures. This discrepancy between objectives for birds and other species groups is reflected in the Target Species sections of this document. Motivated, in part, by this deficiency, a team comprised of individuals from across the Service is working in concert with experts in LCCs, Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, Fish Habitat Partnerships and the USGS in collating population and habitat objectives for both bird and non-avian priority species in the focal areas of the Service’s Vision. Armed with a list of widely recognized priority species and agreed upon population objectives, this team is also developing through the “Biological Objectives to Guide Strategic Habitat Conservation for the Gulf Coast” (Biological Objectives Project) a number of species-habitat models and applying these in a spatially explicit way to help quantify geographic information system environment to help quantify the biological return on investment of alternative restoration scenarios.

At least 93 species of both resident and migratory birds were exposed to Deepwater Horizon oil in multiple habitats across all five Gulf states, including open water, islands, beaches, bays and marshes. Restoration planning will address the broad diversity of injured bird species; in doing so, we will identify where restoration would provide the greatest benefits within their geographic ranges. For example, approaches to restoring injured bird species include conserving bird nesting and foraging habitat; creating, restoring, and enhancing coastal wetlands; restoring and enhancing dunes and beaches; creating, restoring and enhancing barrier and coastal islands and headlands; restoring and enhancing submerged aquatic vegetation; protecting and conserving marine, coastal, estuarine, and riparian habitats; establishing or re-establishing breeding colonies; and preventing incidental bird mortality.

While the Biological Objectives Project currently focuses only on a subset of the Service’s trust resource species, it is not our intent to limit the scope of restoration to the Service’s priorities. Rather, by translating population objectives for our trust resource species into habitat objectives, we are placing our priorities into the context of habitat that is the common currency of many Gulf partners’ interests. In this way, we can more easily identify and communicate to others where our specific objectives overlap on the landscape and we can participate in more productive partnerships around shared goals. As additional shared priorities emerge, our intent is to expand this work to additional species and habitats.