Can we save the Gulf of Mexico?

By Dr. Larry McKinney
December 24, 2009 at midnight , Corpus Christi Caller-Times

    The president charged the heads of executive departments and federal agencies to develop a national policy recommendation to ensure the protection, maintenance and restoration of oceans, our coasts and the Great Lakes. 

    The task force held hearings around the country. I was asked to provide input on the concept of marine spatial planning (MSP), a central theme for the draft policy, as it might affect the Gulf, and again on Gulf fisheries issues. 

    The possibility of a true national oceans policy holds great promise. What happens in and to this marine environment affects the economic and environmental health of our nation.

    The latest data on U.S. ocean sector industries reveal that more than 2 million jobs and over $128 billion in GDP annually result from just ocean tourism, recreation and fisheries. The Gulf of Mexico contributes over 90 percent of our nation’s offshore energy production. The offshore petroleum industry in the Gulf employs 55,000 workers. At the same time the Gulf yields 69 percent of the shrimp and 70 percent of oysters caught in the U.S. 

    More than 41 percent of the United States drains into the Gulf via the Mississippi River and contributes to the annual creation of a “dead zone” that can extend up to 7,000 square miles. Gulf coast states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) make up four of the five top states responsible for the greatest surface discharge of toxic chemicals. Even with these stressors the Gulf annually produces more finfish, shrimp and shellfish than the south and mid-Atlantic, Chesapeake and New England areas combined. 

    Gulf recreational fisheries also generate $5.4 billion annually. Recreational fishing added 1,000 new jobs a year to the Texas economy from 2001 to 2006, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports. 

    The Gulf of Mexico is a place where economics and the environment both coexist and contend. The balance of economic and environmental health and productivity we now enjoy is not sustainable. The Gulf of Mexico is basically a shallow subtropical sea, and as such is this country’s most vulnerable body of water to the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, warming temperatures, ocean acidification and stampeding invasive species, exacerbated by growing populations and expanding resource demands, will overpower even the Gulf’s remarkable resilience unless we change the paradigm of management. 

    The current tangle of more than 140 different and sometimes conflicting laws and regulations, administered by 20 federal agencies, is not a recipe for success. The draft national policy calls for the formation of a National Ocean Council to coordinate the various agencies. If this can be more than just another layer of bureaucracy and actually break down traditional walls between federal agencies, it will be of benefit. If a National Ocean Council tries to implement a one-size-fits-all policy over our diverse ocean regions, it will be an unmitigated disaster.

    There exist regional models of ocean governance that hold great potential to achieve the stated goals of a national ocean policy. The Gulf States Alliance is one such model that has been emulated in other coastal regions and is the ideal means to both craft and implement national policies into regionally effective ones.

    Marine spatial planning is a process for analyzing and managing ocean space for specified commercial, recreational and environmental purposes. Oil and gas interests are concerned it will be used to preclude their activities. Fisheries interests are concerned that it will be used to establish no-fishing zones. These fears do not have to be realized. MSP can be a valuable tool to assure both the economic and environmental health of our coastal oceans if it is regionally directed to assure all stakeholders a place at the table and if the process recognizes that economic and environmental health are inexorably linked. 

    The Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies was formed around these very concepts and is the reason I am both supportive and cautious regarding the emphasis of MSP by the task force. The recently issued interim MSP guidelines, issued by the task force on Dec. 9, appear to provide for regional input.

    A national ocean policy can be the framework to guide us through an unsure future and help assure the economic and environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico. The devil is in the details, but both the Harte Research Institute and I are more optimistic about our oceans’ future because of this effort. You should be as well. 

    Dr. Larry McKinney is the Director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies located at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. E-mail: