Sunday, May 27, 2018
Opinion

Column: Let science, not quick fixes, guide gulf restoration

Noted American satirist and journalist H.L. Mencken once said, "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong."

That's an observation worth remembering as we seek to restore and protect Florida's Gulf Coast in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

With passage of the RESTORE Act, 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines paid by BP and other parties responsible for the spill now will be used to fund projects that benefit the Gulf of Mexico's coastal resources. This is an unprecedented opportunity to support on-the-ground projects to restore gulf environments, helping communities become more resilient to adversity.

Unfortunately, it also opens the door to "quick fix" projects that may appear to provide simple solutions, but in reality lack a critical science-based foundation.

Currently, Gulf Coast states are collecting proposals for restoration projects from management agencies, municipalities, county governments, citizens' groups, nonprofits and others.

The amount of funding likely to be available is unprecedented. While the process of selecting projects is still to be determined, the approaches used can benefit from key lessons learned in similar efforts.

First, projects must have a foundation in science.

Natural resource management decisions for restoring unique environments like the gulf are complex problems without simple solutions. Yet it is human nature, especially when faced with incomplete or contradictory information, to accept the simplest explanation first, then to try to solve the problem with intuition and quick action.

Unfortunately, there are many examples around the world where this approach has been ineffective.

In the Chesapeake Bay, for instance, hatcheries have produced hundreds of millions of oyster larvae to help clean the bay's polluted water and boost the once-thriving oyster industry, but these efforts have had limited success. Why? Because the conditions for survival remain poor due to impaired water quality, depleted substrate and prevalent parasitic diseases. A hatchery might be a partial restoration tool, but the simple solution of building hatcheries to provide more larvae was the wrong answer to the complicated problem of restoring natural populations.

Closer to home, the commercial harvest of oysters from Apalachicola Bay has declined significantly and for unknown reasons. Working with management agencies and the local community, University of Florida researchers have assessed a range of possible causes — record low freshwater flows, disease, overharvest — that singularly or in combination could all cause the oyster population to collapse.

The RESTORE Act provides an opportunity to begin to restore the Apalachicola Bay oyster population and the associated coastal economy, while also teaching us how to make the environment more resilient to future threats. Many of the ideas proposed are intuitively simple, but we know from experience that the solution is likely more complicated than it initially appears.

In addition to a firm foundation in science, we must also acknowledge uncertainty in how ecosystems respond to restoration actions.

This doesn't mean restoration can't be successful. Instead, these uncertainties force us to design restoration projects as deliberate experiments we can learn from. We could, for instance, learn a lot about how freshwater flows from the Apalachicola River influence oyster abundance in the bay simply by restoring some oyster bars near the river mouth, where freshwater from the river creates lower salinity habitats, and others farther away from the river mouth where salinity is higher.

Finally, it is critical that restoration projects have community support.

Along the Gulf Coast, residents and industries must actively participate in restoration projects to reinforce stewardship of coastal resources. In Apalachicola Bay, UF is helping oystermen and others whose livelihoods depend on the oyster harvest plan for sustainably using the resource. They have contributed to field research and restoration activities, and are ambassadors in the community, helping a broader segment of the population understand the importance of environmental stewardship to their quality of life and their economic future.

The Deepwater Horizon spill was a terrible disaster that resulted in the tragic loss of human life and long-term harm to people's livelihoods. The spill also damaged large areas of the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps permanently. Three years later, the RESTORE Act aims to provide restoration and research projects to repair some of this harm to the gulf's coastal communities.

To make the most of this opportunity, we must adopt a deliberate approach to evaluate and select projects that maximize learning, embrace uncertainty and involve local communities. In so doing, we increase the likelihood of achieving our true goal of restoring and protecting Florida's Gulf of Mexico environments and economies.

Jack Payne is senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida.

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