Estuary revival favored at local Gulf listening session

jajones1@bradenton.comApril 19, 2011 

MANATEE -- Take something as complex as the Deepwater Horizon disaster which spilled more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico last year and ask what should be the priority in restoring the ecosystem.

That’s what representatives of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force did during a listening session Monday night at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee’s Selby Auditorium.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t get a single answer.

The answers included everything from stop dumping in the Gulf of Mexico to helping Louisiana halt the loss of 30 square miles of coastline a year to finding safe alternative energy sources.

But probably the No. 1 response was protecting and preserving local estuaries, shorelines and bays.

That didn’t surprise Buck Sutter, task force deputy, who said residents in other nearby environmentally conscious areas, such as Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, responded similarly.

The task force, created in October under the executive order of President Barack Obama, is aimed at finding solutions to the Gulf oil catastrophe and returning the Gulf of Mexico to good health.

What task force members failed to hear Monday was a consensus for “the priority issue facing the Gulf regarding the ecosystem restoration.”

Nor did the task force hear exactly what other residents are saying in listening sessions in the five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico from Brownsville, Texas to Key West.

But regardless of how a Gulf community might have been affected by the spill, one thing all of them suffered was “almost an assault on the psyche,” Sutter said.

The catastrophe also left many unanswered questions, Sutter said.

“What is out there? What’s happened to the blue fin tuna population and the whale sharks?” Sutter asked,

What happened to the spilled oil?

Sutter asked the audience to think ahead 5, 10, and 100 years about the spill and its effects.

But he admitted the problem is tremendously difficult,

“If it were easy we would have already done it,” Sutter said.

Among those urging remediation and protection of local estuary areas as the top priority was Jay Leverone, scientist with the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program.

Sounding a similar theme was Charlie Hunsicker, natural resources director for Manatee County.

There are plenty of opportunities to bolster Mother Nature’s efforts to recover from the spill, and Hunsicker suggested that funds go to thousands of estuaries along the Gulf Coast.

“Small things multiplied thousands of times can have a great effect too,” Hunsicker said.

Local resident Dudley Fort also supported estuary restoration.

“I feel that estuary reclamation is most important,” he said.

Parrish resident Dick Eckenrod had a different take.

“In Florida, we fret over the loss of a fraction of an acre of wetlands, as we should,” Eckenrod said.

In Louisiana, however, straightening the Mississippi River has altered the distribution of sediment from Louisiana’s shores and sent it directly into a Gulf “dead zone,” Eckenrod said.

As a result, Louisiana is losing 30 square miles of its coastline annually, he said.

The restoration of Louisiana wetlands should be the No. 1 priority, he said.

Also having an alternative view was Phil Compton, field organizer for Sierra Club, who suggested putting the real focus on safe, alternative fuel sources to lessen the reliance on risky deep-water drilling.

“We need another choice,” Compton said, referring to the dependence on fossil fuels.

The task force, composed of 11 federal agencies and the five Gulf states, is charged with development of a restoration strategy by Oct. 5.

For more information, visit www.restorethegulf.govtask-force or call toll free 855-427-9263.

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