More than two years after BP's disastrous gulf oil spill, Congress is finally getting around to legislation that would begin to restore America's Gulf Coast and the marine resources of the Gulf of Mexico. The awkwardly named "Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast Act of 2011," known in short as the Restore Act, would ensure that 80 percent of the fines and penalties paid by BP and others responsible for the disaster are used to restore the natural resources and economies of gulf coastal communities.
The Gulf Coast is one of America's richest treasures, providing one-third of America's seafood, including more than 75 percent of shrimp landings and 60 percent of oyster production. Commercial fishing in Florida alone accounts for approximately $13 billion in in-state sale of seafood and supports about 65,000 jobs. Recreational fishing in Florida contributes more than $5 billion and more than 50,000 jobs to the state's economy. In total, tourism and recreational activities such as fishing, boating and wildlife-watching support approximately 1.4 million jobs in Florida and add an estimated $100 billion in annual revenues.
The sustainability of commercial and recreational fishing depends on healthy coastal habitats, as nearly 95 percent of targeted finfish and shellfish depend on estuaries and coastal waters during their life cycles. Florida's coral reefs, oyster bars, barrier islands, salt marshes, mangroves and sea grass meadows provide a critical buffer against storms and hurricanes, making coastal communities safer and more resilient. Coastal habitats along the gulf are among the most important on the continent for wintering waterfowl and migrating songbirds, and support a rich diversity of species including marine mammals, sea turtles and beach nesting birds.
But the Gulf Coast is also an industrial, working coastline. More than 4,000 oil and gas rigs in gulf waters produce more than 90 percent of America's offshore oil and natural gas. The Gulf Coast supports 13 of the top 20 ports in the United States, and thousands of miles of canals and navigational channels have been dug and dredged through coastal habitats to support these industries. Over a million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost to development, erosion and subsidence related to these activities. During the past century, America's Gulf Coast has lost about half of its coastal wetlands and other critical habitats.
To add insult to injury, each summer an area of low oxygen, or "dead zone," forms along the Louisiana coast, the result of millions of tons of nutrients washing down the Mississippi River from the nation's heartland. An area about the size of New Jersey, the dead zone is caused by excess nutrients from fertilizers, soil erosion and discharges from wastewater treatment plants in the Mississippi River watershed, which drains about 41 percent of the continental United States. As the name implies, the dead zone creates an uninhabitable environment for many marine species, especially bottom-dwelling organisms that can't migrate away but which are critically important because they form the basis of the marine food web throughout the gulf. Other pollutants including nutrients and pathogens also enter coastal waters and estuaries through storm water and wastewater, which degrades drinking water sources, causes closure of beaches and shellfishing waters, and reduces the quality of aquatic habitats and human health.
Most of these ecosystem problems affecting America's Gulf Coast existed long before BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and will not be addressed by BP's existing obligation to fix the natural resource damage it caused or the economic disaster it created. But it is fitting, fair and just to use much of BP's civil fines and penalties to fund ecosystem solutions necessary to address ecological damage to the Gulf Coast caused by decades of degradation, neglect and abuse. This will create badly needed jobs in Florida and throughout Gulf Coast states, help fishing and tourism industries recover from an unprecedented environmental disaster, and restore and rebuild coastal ecosystems that will help protect coastal communities by making them more resilient to tropical storms, hurricanes and coastal flooding from rising sea levels.
To protect the gulf for future generations and ensure a robust economy, Congress must take the necessary steps to pass the Restore Act and direct the BP fine money back to Florida and the gulf states where it belongs. Investing fines from the oil disaster to restore the gulf now will pay huge dividends in the future. The Restore Act is now being considered by a Senate-House conference committee as part of the federal transportation bill. We all have a stake in this.
David White is the director of the Gulf of Mexico Restoration Campaign for the National Wildlife Federation.