Congress, the Mabus Report, and Why Gulf Restoration Matters for All of Us

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ new report on how to restore the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the BP oil disaster is a sound foundational document. It lays out five critical goals for reviving the ecosystem, and it underscores the administration’s commitment to the Gulf and its people.

It also calls on Congress to make this restoration a reality by dedicating the Clean Water Act penalties to the effort and establishing a council that can oversee long-term ecosystem recovery.

This is the kind of fully engaged response we need from our leaders right now. America must not waver in our commitment to reviving the ecosystem that sustains the Gulf, its economy, and cultural traditions.

For this is not just a local or regional issue. It is a matter of national import. And it deserves a sustained response that is equal to the magnitude of the problem.

Think about it: The Gulf feeds America in many ways. Nearly one-third of all fish caught in the continental United States come from coastal Louisiana. Gulf beaches, barrier islands, and abundant aquatic life attract millions of visitors and as many as $34.2 in tourist business each year. And every fall billions of birds—including some from your backyard or neighborhood park—fly across the Gulf or stop there for the winter.

These are just some of the ways we have come to rely on the Gulf, and they remind us that when we read reports about “ecosystem restoration,” we are talking about living, breathing creatures and vibrant places that sustain a complex web of life, a web we humans are a part of.

As I explain in my new book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, the BP oil disaster has threatened each one of these threads in the web. Fallout from the spill could endanger them for years to come, especially if we fail to fully attend to the damage the oil is doing.

Take the bluefin tuna, which the Mabus report singles out. The Gulf is the spawning area for the entire population of fast disappearing Western Atlantic bluefin tuna, a princely fish that can live for 2 decades, grow to as much as 1,400 pounds, and swim up to 50 miles per hour. Like all creatures, though, they start off small and vulnerable. The oil spill occurred just as the two-month spawning season began, and the oil poisoned the waters just as fragile eggs and larvae were set adrift in floating sargassum grass, acres upon acres of which were destroyed by oil.

Even before the spill, stocks of these fish in U.S. waters had plummeted by more than 73 percent in the past 35 years, mostly due to overfishing. It will take years to understand how much closer the spill pushed the bluefin tuna toward the brink, and years of careful restoration to ensure this magnificent fish does not disappear from the face of the earth.  

The bluefin tuna is just one living creature suffering from BP’s oil. By August, more than 2,000 oil-soaked pelicans had been picked up dead or dying along Gulf shores. Another 1,200 were found dead without oil on their feathers, though a large percentage undoubtedly had oil in their bodies after eating oil-contaminated fish.

Biologists use a rule of thumb that at least 10 creatures are dead for every 1 dead animal found. Keep that in mind as you consider that 60 dead bottlenose dolphins had been found by the end of August and 1 sperm whale was found dead in June. The sperm whale is 1 of 6 Gulf whales listed as endangered. There are so few sperm whales left—and their reproductive rates so low—that the loss of as few as three females could literally spell doom for this species.

This is what’s at stake in the Gulf right now: fisheries that feed Americans and generate livelihoods, birds that enliven nearly every state in the nation, and marine mammals that are a precious part of our natural heritage.

These creatures and the people of the Gulf deserve America’s full commitment to reviving the natural systems that support them.

Our lawmakers must deliver on that promise by passing the laws that will make this recovery a reality.