Gulf of Mexico concerns aired as key federal officials visit New Orleans

By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
October 20, 2009, 4:55AM

Jane Lubchenco is administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

Comments for the national ocean policy task force reflected the wide-ranging pressures on the Gulf of Mexico’s resources: oil and gas pipelines and drilling activity; pollution from the Mississippi River creating a vast "dead zone" in the Gulf; overfishing that puts some species at risk; and the large-scale collapse of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, which provide a nursery for Gulf seafood and serve as the infrastructure for ports and energy production. 

"Over the past 20 years or so, we have watched as the dead zone has grown, and no funding has come down to do anything about it. We have watched as our coast has disappeared," said Tracy Kuhns, who lives in the Lafitte area and runs Louisiana Bayoukeeper, a coastal advocacy group. "It’s not just a wetlands, it’s not just a swamp out there. People live there. When we lose all that we lose our culture, and our livelihoods." 

Obama has asked the ocean policy task force to draft an ocean policy plan by Dec. 9. Monday’s meeting in New Orleans was one of six the group is holding across the United States. The specifics they will address in their plan are unclear at this point. An interim report from the task force issued last month mentions pollution from rivers and the need to better integrate the way federal agencies manage ocean resources. 

"Right now it’s pretty obvious the oceans are becoming increasingly crowded places, and we’re seeing more and more conflicts across that space," said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is on the ocean policy task force, as well as a new federal interagency working group to address Louisiana’s coastal land loss. "That will inevitably require doing things differently, but what that is we don’t really know."

Although Monday’s meeting was tailored to ocean policy, the bulk of the comments focused on coastal collapse in Louisiana. 

‘The nation cannot continue to watch Louisiana disappear,’ said Robert Twilley. “Thinking big and thinking bold is urgent," said Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor for research at Louisiana State University and a professor of oceanography and coastal sciences. "Supporting aggressive actions that are not paralyzed by conflicting federal policy should be of the highest priority."

Dealing with coastal restoration should not be viewed as an either-or decision by policymakers in Washington, said Denise Reed, a coastal researcher at the University of New Orleans. 

"It’s not about a choice between navigation and ecosystem restoration, it’s about interdependence. We want to do navigation on this river and we want to do oil and gas, " she said. "Louisiana is undoubtedly in a crisis, and we don’t need short-term fixes, we need deliberative thinking about what the next century holds." 

Many recreational and for-hire fishing groups cautioned they should be included upfront in any plans the federal government has for ocean conservation.

"There’s a lot of people who make their living on the water here, " said Gary Williams, a charter boat captain in Mississippi. "Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we can continue to do so." 

Jim Grant, a representative with oil company BP America, said any changes should consider effects on the Gulf’s energy economy. "We caution the task force to carefully weigh policies that may set up exclusionary zones, disrupt the (federal government’s) leasing program or disrupt opportunities for economic growth."

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Chris Kirkham can be reached at or 504.826.3786.