Measuring the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on fish spawning may seem like a highly technical scientific issue of concern only to a small niche of researchers, but it is actually a critical questions with enormous implications for the economy and ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. That’s because fish spawning has direct effects on the vitally important commercial fishing industry, recreational fishing and associated tourism, and many other businesses that rely on those activities. It also impacts the foundations of the Gulf ecosystem in ways we are still working to fully understand.
In Texas, scientists are studying these patterns and working to design a cooperative, Gulf-wide monitoring and conservation program. The project will focus exclusively on fish spawning to benefit states along the Gulf Coast that rely on stable fisheries for economic prosperity.
This research project, carried out by NOAA, Texas A&M University, and others, is one of the ambitious programs set forth as part of a sweeping plan that funnels civil and administrative penalties from the Deepwater Horizon disaster toward restoration projects throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act, known as the RESTORE Act, is a multi-billion dollar effort to provide support for Gulf Coast communities that were affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The 2012 RESTORE Act created the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, which funnels 80 percent of any Clean Water Act penalties paid by British Petroleum (BP) and other entities involved in the oil spill, into support for projects to restore the ecological and economic health of the region.
In April 2016, BP reached a settlement to pay $1,100 per barrel of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with a total of $4.4 billion funneled exclusively into projects under the RESTORE Act. Including penalties from other implicated companies, the RESTORE Act will direct $5.3 billion into the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund.
The Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund makes the RESTORE Act unique. In response to previous oil spills, civil penalties have been directed to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to clean up future oil spills. The penalty system imposed by the RESTORE Act directs funds to specific restoration projects in the Gulf to respond to the ecosystem damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the need to rebuild struggling economies that were impacted by the spill.
The funding mechanism for the program provides states with money to carry out state-specific restoration projects that target ecological impacts of the oil spill. Money is also allocated to support the Restoration Council, a governance structure set up by the Act that is comprised of federal officials and the governors of each Gulf Coast state. Its primary responsibility is to develop comprehensive annual plans to restore the economies and ecosystems of the Gulf Coast region. In August 2013, an Initial Comprehensive Plan was approved to establish restoration goals and develop a mechanism for funding various restoration projects throughout the region. The plan is currently being revised with the hope of producing another comprehensive plan in 2018.
The remaining funds are allocated to Gulf Coast states based on the specific impacts each experienced from the oil spill to fund research and scientific monitoring in the Gulf.
Given the unprecedented influx of restoration funding, efficient management of RESTORE funds will be important to maximize the benefits of the Act for Gulf communities. The wide-reaching opportunities presented by the RESTORE Act illustrate a shift toward restoration and sustainable environmental management in the wake of one of the country’s biggest environmental disasters.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.