Who's Tracking the BP Oil Spill Money That's Supposed to Restore Oyster Reefs?

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With the BP oil spill settlement about to be dispersed, some of that money will go toward rebuilding and revitalizing oyster reefs that were damaged when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded into flames and sank into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, kicking off what ended up being one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history.

After the rig sank, oil gushed out of the well for weeks, until it was finally successfully capped and pronounced sealed in September 2010. By then countless barrels of crude had gushed into the Gulf waters and screwed up the delicate balance for a lot of the creatures living there, including oysters.

Oyster reefs, once dominant habitats in estuaries worldwide, have experienced greater losses than any other marine habitat. It’s estimated that 90 percent of oyster reef habitats have been lost around the world. In the Gulf of Mexico, oyster habitat losses number anywhere from 50 to 80 percent. Because of this loss and the many potential benefits oyster reefs offer, oyster reef restoration has become an increasingly popular coastal project.

In fact, efforts to restore various oyster reefs in the United States have already sucked up more than $45 million and countless hours of labor, according to a study by Brittany Blomberg titled “Evaluating the Success of Oyster Reef Restoration.” Blomberg conducted the study for her dissertation while she was a student at Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

During her research looking into what kind of progress had actually been made from attempts to restore oyster reefs, he found that despite the fact that the federal 2000 Estuary Restoration Act  — which requires monitoring of all efforts to restore damaged and degraded marine habitats — nobody was monitoring the oyster reef restorations. Thus, people were expending a whole bunch of money and effort on these projects without bothering to check in over the years and see if the restoration methods had actually worked. 

Blomberg reviewed database entries for more than 192 oyster restoration projects entered into the National Estuaries Restoration Inventory and found that the monitoring data simply weren't there, according to a release from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. And this is a pity. If the oyster reefs had been tracked properly, we'd have a better idea of the impact each restoration project had on the health of the restoration areas as a whole. 

Healthy oyster reefs are indicative of healthy coastal systems. Oysters also do a lot of good for the environment and act as a part of the ecosystem. They filter out all kinds of junk from the water, including excess phytoplankton and other nutrients, helping to keep the water clean. The filtering also helps to keep various algae blooms, like red-tide algae, from thriving too much. Oyster reefs take care of a water pollution problem known as eutrophication, which can create a situation in which there's no oxygen in the water and, you know, kill off all the marine life in the area. Luckily, oysters also stop that from happening when the reefs are really functioning in a healthy way. 

And it doesn't stop there: Oyster reefs help stop coastal erosion by buffering the worst of the storm surge that would otherwise be smacking into beaches and the houses and roads that incredibly optimistic people choose to build right along the shoreline. 

The merits of oyster reefs have not been lost on the people in charge of dispersing the more than $20 billion that British Petroleum has agreed to pay as a settlement for the BP oil spill. So far, more than $160 million has been earmarked for oyster reef restoration projects. 

This is great, but Blomberg warns that if somebody doesn't actually start recording data, monitoring the progress of these restoration projects and tracking how the money is used, we'll never know if the investment has really paid off. “This is a huge restoration opportunity, and its biggest impact will be in the Gulf. But the data and knowledge we can gain through these RESTORE funds and their application in the Gulf can easily transfer to locations around the world,” Blomberg said. “It’s important for the restoration community as a whole to be invested in how these projects are being implemented, how the data is being managed and how that information will ultimately be used.”

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