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Column: Damage to gulf ecosystem persists

Just last month, hundreds of tar balls washed ashore in Escambia County. According to one report, nearly 2,000 pounds, or 37,000 tar balls, have been picked off Florida beaches since 2013.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon tragedy. Those of us living on the Gulf Coast have not forgotten the fiery explosion, the unnecessary loss of life and the widespread damage to coastal and marine environments and wildlife.

Oil continues to wash ashore on beaches in other gulf states, too, and our marine life is struggling to recover. Comprehensive restoration remains a critical need, especially in the marine environment where the disaster occurred. Meanwhile, funding is in short supply for the ongoing, key scientific studies needed to determine exactly what healthy, restored marine and coastal environments might look like.

I vividly remember the 2010 disaster. I was working as a natural resource planner for Baldwin County in my home state of Alabama and found myself suddenly flying in a Black Hawk helicopter for the first time. We swooped over beaches watching the waves of oil roll in from the gulf. I felt helpless.

Equally vivid is the memory of watching the news as the first reports came in about those who lost their lives that day. Growing up here, I know people who work offshore on the rigs massed in the gulf. It stopped me in my tracks. I thought of friends and hoped they were safe.

My sister called and asked if I was concerned about the environmental impact. Published projection maps showed the spill drawing closer to the coast daily. The place where we spent so many happy childhood days might never be the same.

I grew up in Mobile, a small port city. As children, my brother and I built forts in the woods and played in the nearby creek. I spent summer days with my big sister on those same beaches that were now covered in oil. We fished for mullet and flounder at Cedar Point pier near Dauphin Island and Gulf State Park in Orange Beach.

I developed a passion for the gulf and pursued an environmental degree in college motivated by the wish to protect the things I loved. Of course, there was no way to foresee that this would one day involve me in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.

A dividing line now runs through my life, as it does the lives of many gulf residents — before and after the disaster. In late 2010, I joined the team at Ocean Conservancy, where I have the privilege to work with folks across the Gulf Coast to ensure that the gulf is restored from the BP oil disaster, as well as from decades of degradation. And, four years later, the effects of the BP oil disaster continue to arrive steady as drumbeats.

In the past year we've learned that dolphins in Barataria Bay are suffering from severe health problems. The area surrounding the Deepwater Horizon well blowout at the bottom of the gulf is larger than we knew — 24 square kilometers, the equivalent of 4,500 football fields. And multiple scientific studies now show the oil has taken a serious toll on fish, including the valuable bluefin tuna.

Restoring the gulf will take a comprehensive, holistic approach. We have to address the environmental effects of the oil spill. We also need to correct for prior problems triggered by pollution and overfishing. We have only one gulf, and we rely on its entire ecosystem, from the coastline, where so many of us live, to the deep marine environments. That is why we must take a comprehensive approach to restoring the gulf and use the best available science as our compass.

The challenge at hand is restoring an ecosystem so precious to us and our way of life. Gulf restoration is personal to those who call the gulf home. Each day, I'm reminded of the magnitude of this task before us. We have one chance to get this right. When I look back 25 years from now at what has been accomplished, I hope I look back with satisfaction at a course well-charted.

Kara Lankford serves as interim director of Ocean Conservancy's Gulf Restoration Program. She guides Ocean Conservancy's work across the Gulf Coast to ensure comprehensive, science-based and community-supported restoration of the gulf ecosystem by engaging and connecting public officials, fishermen, conservation partners, members of affected communities and others. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Damage to gulf ecosystem persists 04/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 4:41pm]

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