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Alliance's Goal: Healthy Gulf of Mexico

By DAVID RAINER

With more than half of the nation’s population living within 50 miles of the coastline, it is obvious to conservation managers that the health of the affected bodies of water should be a top priority.

For those of us who live in Alabama and the four other Gulf states, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance was formed to meet the challenges created by that population dynamic – not the least of which are oxygen-depleted zones in the Gulf, red tides, fish kills and water quality issues.

The alliance held its annual meeting last week in Mobile and highlighted four of those challenges – sustaining the Gulf economy, improving ecosystem health, mitigating the impacts of and adapting to climate changes, and mitigating harmful effects to coastal water quality. The meeting was attended by more than 300 participants, including representatives of the five Gulf states and  12 federal agencies including the Department of Interior, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a delegation from two Mexican states.

Barnett Lawley, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, fully understands why so many people live so close to the Gulf.

“We are truly fortunate to live in a state with abundant natural resources,” Lawley said. “Although we have a fairly small coastal area it is one that is diverse and abundant with lush wetlands, dense forest and large numbers of rivers, bays, creeks, lagoons, lakes and pristine white sand beaches. When it comes to living resources even though our state is ranked as 25th in land area, The Nature Conservancy ranks Alabama fifth nationally in terms of biodiversity with a total of 4,533 different species.”

Lawley pointed out that the Mobile Bay watershed is the sixth largest river basin in the United States and the fourth largest in the terms of stream flow. It drains water from three quarters of the State of Alabama, and portions of Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi as it empties into Mobile Bay. Hundreds of recreational and commercial vessels that cruise from the Gulf of Mexico travel up the Bay and continue their voyage along the 450-mile-long Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway to the Tennessee River. 

Those abundant coastal resources also provide valuable sources of revenue to the citizens of Alabama, Lawley said. Commercial species harvest for the 2006 fisheries was $48.5 million. The Alabama Port of Mobile had an estimated 1,300 vessels dock at its terminals in 2008. That same year the port handled 28.1 million tons of cargo with an estimated value of $125 million.

“If you look at the Gulf of Mexico as a region, the Gulf has a gross domestic product of over $2.2 trillion according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis,” Lawley said. “The economy of the Gulf of Mexico region provides jobs for more than 20 million people and provides for roughly half of the U.S. oil, natural gas and refinery production.”

The Gulf of Mexico also yields 69 percent of the shrimp and 70 percent of the oysters caught in the U.S. Seven of the nation’s top 10 ports are located in the Gulf of Mexico region.

“It is a huge economic engine,” Lawley said. “For the engine to function properly it must be healthy. All of the economic activity I have talked about depends on a healthy Gulf ecosystem. There are numerous threats to the Gulf of Mexico, including one of the world’s largest zones of hypoxia and harmful algae blooms that threaten our seafood industry. There are also threats from natural disasters such as hurricanes and flooding.”

The governors from the five Gulf states (Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Texas Gov. Rick Perry) signed off on the alliance’s Governor’s Action Plan II to address threats to the Gulf of Mexico. Each state has taken leadership roles in the plan. Florida heads the Water Quality for Healthy Beaches and Seafood team, while Mississippi’s team will tackle Reducing Nutrient Impacts to Coastal Ecosystems. Texas heads the Ecosystems Integration and Assessment team. Louisiana is charged with leading the Habitat Conservation and Restoration team, while Mississippi and Louisiana will team up to handle the Coastal Community Resilience aspect of the plan. Alabama is in charge of the Environmental Education team.

“Alabama is proud to be part of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance,” Lawley said. “As the leader of the Environmental Education component of the Alliance through the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve we realize providing and developing environmental education programs are critical to a healthy Gulf of Mexico. Fostering stewardship through various outreach programs that include local, cultural and economic values is needed to encourage the citizens to take action toward a sustainable and healthier Gulf of Mexico.

“The Department recently completed the construction of a new Gulf State Park Pier. This pier is 1520 feet long and is currently the longest pier in the Gulf of Mexico. The Department plans to install interpretive signage on the pier about the Gulf of Mexico. This signage will educate the public on the valuable resources of the Gulf. It has been determined that about a third of the visitors to the pier are not fisherman and this offers a great opportunity to educate the public.”

Bryon Griffith, Director of the EPA’s Gulf of Mexico Program, said the impact of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance has already been recognized and the federal government’s role is to facilitate the execution of the plan.

“The Gulf of Mexico Alliance, now only four years old, is the leading model in the country,” Griffith said. “Our goal from a federal standpoint is to keep them in that leadership role, being as supportive as possible by bringing technical and financial resources to bear on the priority problems that they share in the region.”

Griffith said the Gulf of Mexico, because of its size and the fact that water cycles through the system in basically one year, has an advantage over systems like the Great Lakes. However, he pointed out it’s much easier to work on solutions with a healthy Gulf than trying to play catch-up when a problem becomes severe.

“In one respect, you see the issues faster, but the responses to solutions are seen faster in that type of cycle system,” he said. “The problem in the Gulf is that we have so many people that live here and while the economy is our No. 1 issue of late, we have an understanding that the economy in this region is buoyed by our ecology along the coastline. So our primary issue is not that we don’t see these problems, it’s how to get our larger public and political interests involved so we don’t reach the tipping point on several of these issues.

“Take for instance, habitat loss would be acute in the Mobile area, as it is in southeast Louisiana. This region contains 50 percent of the nation’s coastal wetlands and sea grasses inventories. This is a wonderful place to live, but it’s not infinitely resilient. It’s a balance. Probably the real hallmark of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance is that it’s a balanced economic, ecological partnership framework.”

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