| November 9, 2017
Restoring the Gulf of Mexico is a daunting task. Decades of degradation, compounded by the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, have presented scientists with an array of problems to solve - declining fisheries, eroding shorelines and sea-level rise, to name a few.
In Florida, our estuaries, areas along the coast in which freshwater meets ocean waters, are among the most productive natural areas. Our nearshore waters, like bays and lagoons, are dynamic systems and are home to unique plants and animals, cycling and producing food sources and nutrients that support the health of our marine environment, our fisheries, our economy. More than 70 percent of Florida's recreationally and commercially important fishes, crustaceans and shellfish spend part of their lives in estuaries.
National Estuary Programs
The Nature Conservancy and our partners are hard at work to achieve restoration success along our shoreline and inland, at a scale that is beyond what has previously been accomplished. We are poised to make sound, strategic decisions on resource investment, to further water quality, restoration of natural systems and watershed protection.
One of the most effective ways to achieve conservation goals in coastal communities is through National Estuary Programs (NEP). NEPs are non-regulatory programs funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and local communities. Each NEP community works together to identify environmental issues in the watershed and apply science-based solutions to restore the estuary's health. In Florida, we are fortunate to have 4 NEPs: Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf Coast and the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast. yet there are other important coastal areas where an NEP could offer valuable benefits.
Florida's Panhandle has been described as the Emerald Coast, a jewel showcasing Florida's unique and special lands, waters and the species that depend on them - oysters, birds, fish, seagrass and so much more. The Panhandle region boasts some of the highest biodiversity in the country. As ground zero for the impacts of the oil spill, the Panhandle region would greatly benefit from the collaborative community based approach an NEP offers. Recognizing the need and the potential, the Conservancy is working with local governments and other partners to create estuary programs focused on a watershed approach to conservation of the Panhandle's unique natural, economic and cultural resources. As a direct result of our efforts, the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Council - the agencies responsible for distributing portions of the oil spill funds - is funding the creation of one new estuary program in Florida's Panhandle.
Creating the first estuary program in the Panhandle is an excellent step to ensuring protection and restoration of this remarkable region. The Conservancy continues to pursue additional funding to create Estuary Programs for all of the region's watersheds. The creation of Estuary Programs will help ensure the use of sound science to identify solutions and projects that address the biggest impacts to the region and that will have the greatest return on investment.
Our Projects and Benefits to Our Estuaries
The following highlights some of our many partnerships and efforts in the Gulf of Mexico:
Reducing wastewater: We've successfully built a coalition among Gulf Power, Bay county and the Panama City to implement wastewater reuse. The project will ultimately connect county and city domestic wastewater plants to the Gulf Power Lansing Smith Generating Plant. By connecting these plants, we are reducing the amount of domestic wastewater entering the community's surface water, while also reducing Gulf Power's demand for fresh water.
Yellow River: In Santa Rosa County, we worked to secure funding from the county's Deepwater Horizon RESTORE funding allocation to address excess sediment entering the Yellow River from unpaved road. Too much sediment can harm the seagrasses, salt marsh, and oysters.
Pensacola: We are designing one of the largest scale oyster habitat restoration projects in Florida, located in East Bay in Santa Rosa County. Oysters in this bay system have been declining since the 1800's. Oyster reefs, one of the world's most imperiled marine habitats, are now on the rebound with projects that will restore reefs along 6.5 miles of shoreline. The Conservancy secured Deepwater Horizon oil spill funds for this project and we are awaiting additional funds for an oyster shell recycling program, to map oyster habitat in the bay, and for a public outreach and educational program.
Apalachicola: The quintessential area of the Gulf that is associated with the word oyster has experienced significant decline. The Conservancy is working with researchers to map the bay's intertidal oyster reefs - a key piece of missing information that is essential to inform future restoration and management of this globally and locally imperiled marine habitat.
Charlotte Harbor: Like many other estuaries in Florida and the Gulf, oysters once thrived here but have since declined by 85-90 percent. Working with partners in this National Estuary, the Conservancy was instrumental in developing the first and only estuary-wide oyster restoration plan in Florida. Using the plan as a guide, the Conservancy and community partners implemented a pilot project to test different methods for oyster restoration along a stretch of shoreline in the City of Punta Gorda. Those that work best will be used to kick start oyster restoration throughout the estuary. One method uses an experimental biodegradable material(called BESE), made from potato starch and developed by companies in the Netherlands for use as substrate - a surface - on which oysters can grow. Florida is the only U.S. state where the material is being tested, and our pilot project is one of just a few. If proven successful, this new material could reduce or replace plastics currently used for oyster and other wetland habitat restoration efforts.
The Conservancy is hard at work on the ground, in the water, and with local, state and federal governments, universities, environmental organizations, businesses, and individuals to ensure a healthy future for our estuaries, watersheds, and the Gulf of Mexico. You can help.