A Look at the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s Science Coordination Team

By Alisha Renfro, Ph.D., Staff Scientist, National Wildlife Federation

In the aftermath of the BP oil disaster, President Obama created the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force through an executive order in October 2010. The mission of this Environmental Protection Agency-led group was to develop a long-term, holistic and science-based ecosystem restoration plan for the Gulf Coast.

Included in this effort was the Science Coordination Team which involved more than 70 scientists from federal and state agencies who provided scientific input for the development of the strategy document. While the final Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy was released in December 2011, the Science Coordination Team realized there was also a need to develop a science program to ensure that both focused and ecosystem-wide science would be available to implement and maintain the Gulf Coast restoration projects. The science team produced a report in April 2012 titled “Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Science Assessment and Needs,” which identified current conditions in the gulf and specified actions that need to be taken to meet the goals set for a healthier ecosystem.

The qualifiers for the recovery of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem are:

  1. Coastal wetland and barrier shoreline habitats are healthy and resilient.
  2. Fisheries are healthy, diverse, and sustainable.
  3. Coastal communities are adaptable and resilient.
  4. A more sustainable storm buffer exists.
  5. Inland habitats, watersheds, and offshore waters are healthy and well managed.

The coastal habitats of the Gulf of Mexico are some of the most productive ecosystems on earth. However, there has been an overall decline in health of these ecosystems as wetlands have been lost, barrier islands have eroded, and water and sediment quality has declined, which has increased stressors on commercially-important species and other organisms. As miles of the Gulf Coast’s protective wetlands and shorelines have been lost due to natural disasters and other events, including the BP oil spill and several hurricanes, the vulnerability of the people who call the region home has increased.

To address these changes, the science team recommended a variety of actions, including identifying historic changes in land use and shoreline changes; determining the sediment, water and nutrient resources needed to support sustainable habitats; and increasing the understanding of the relationships between different types of gulf habitats. Additionally, long-term, continuous scientific data, analysis, and interpretation were identified as critical for informing the design, construction, and operation of restoration projects. They were also considered key in developing modeling tools, methods, and protocols for undertaking ecosystem-level restoration planning and assessing restoration success.

Increasing the health of the surrounding ecosystem will also help improve the resiliency of coastal communities. To directly address risk reduction for communities, the science team suggested holding workshops and training opportunities to bring together local community planners, emergency managers and building code officials to learn about the surrounding environment and how to build more resilient coastal communities.

In September 2012, the duties and responsibilities of the Task Force were transitioned to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. That month, President Obama issued an Executive Order recognizing the importance of the Gulf Coast as a national treasure and acknowledging the successful completion of the Task Force and its strategy document. The Executive Order transferred the Task Force’s duties to the new Restoration Council. The Council, established by the RESTORE Act, will build on the work of the Task Force, identifying projects and programs that would help restore and protect natural resources and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast with funding from the RESTORE Act’s Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund. With a strategy and source of funding in place, recovery and restoration of the Gulf Coast, including the Mississippi River Delta, moves one step closer to becoming a reality.