So, Are We Back To Normal In The Gulf?

By Chris Landers

The cleanup phase from the Deepwater Horizon spill is ending, the restoration phase is beginning, and the Gulf Coast is looking toward the future.

Photo of a fisherman fishing offa Gulf Coast marshSafely anchored off a quiet Gulf Coast marsh, this fisherman is finding that life is good again.

Robert Turpin was the first person to spot oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig drifting into the beaches of his native Escambia County, Florida, where he's the manager of marine resources. It came ashore at night, he remembers, and he just happened to be there, looking.

"My great-grandfather homesteaded on the beaches of northwest Florida at the turn of the last century," he explains. "My family, my career, my whole way of life is inextricably tied to these beaches and waterways. It was a very troubling summer in 2010."

Photo of a pristine Pensacola beach"People who took a year off from their annual pilgrimage down here are coming back."

At the end of 2011, operations in the Gulf Coast hit a milestone, with a bureaucratic transition from "response" to "restoration." The beaches have been cleaned, or reached a state where further cleaning poses a greater risk to delicate ecosystems than simply leaving them as they are. If not the end of the oil-spill cleanup, the transition at least signifies the beginning of the end, and the myriad state, local, and federal agencies involved are setting their sights on returning to normal.

"What it means is we're going back to the normal way of handling coastline issues," explains BP spokesman Ray Melick. While the response operation was going on, if oil was found on a Gulf Coast beach, BP was responsible for cleaning it up. Now, if oil runs up where it shouldn't, an investigation will take place, led by the Coast Guard, to find the responsible party. BP is no longer automatically on the hook.

Photo of couple sitting on a Gulf Coast beach

"We're not going anywhere," Melick continues. "We still have crews out there surveying the shorelines and responding to whatever they find that needs to be cleaned up, and we're moving into the Natural Resources Damage Assessment phase." Beaches need to be individually certified clean by state and federal officials. Melick says that fewer than eight miles of shoreline still needed to be certified, out of 635 miles that required active cleanup. For the future, he points to two ongoing efforts:

1. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative was created shortly after the spill and funded by a $500 million, 10-year grant from BP to study the Gulf. With a research board headed by former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell, the initiative has already funded studies finding, among other things, that fish in the Gulf may have suffered long-term damage similar to that found after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Other grants have gone to the study of new types of oil dispersant, and other environmental effects.

2. Government and private parties are collaborating on the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, a process to figure out what, exactly, needs to be fixed as a result of the Deepwater spill. It's a process that can take years, but NRDA trustees who oversee the project announced the first projects slated for early restoration in December. They include two projects from each of the states bordering the Gulf (excluding Texas, which plans to put its bids in for the next round of funding). In Louisiana, funds will go toward marsh creation and oyster hatcheries; in Mississippi, oysters and artificial reefs; in Alabama, Mobile County will protect and create salt marsh, and Baldwin County will restore sand-dune habitat; and in Florida, the money will go toward sand-dune restoration, and the building of four boat-ramp facilities in Robert Turpin's Escambia County. Those eight projects account for $57 million. Other early restoration projects will be added until the $1 billion fund is spent.

Photo of sunset over the dunes

If the boat ramps stand out on the list, it's as a nod to "the loss of human use of Gulf resources," for those humans who live along the so-called "miracle strip" of beach running roughly from Panama City to Pensacola. Asked to brag a little about his home, Turpin touts the fishing ("one of the most easily accessible deepwater fisheries on the Gulf Coast"), the diving, and the white sand beaches. "We have other projects proposed," Turpin says, "but the ramps are the only ones slated for early restoration." After the spill, "we had booms across almost every waterway, and people avoided the waterways for much of the 2010 season. Any business that had anything to do with the water had a poor year."

Even before the spill, Turpin was looking for land on which to build public ramps, and the project isn't without an environmental component. "We like to think that when we provide access to the waterways, we do so in a way that instills a desire to protect it," he says. "They connect to it and they get it. They say, 'Wow, this is something we need to protect.'"

Photo of jetskiing off the Gulf Coast of Florida

Looking To The Future

There's no real end date for the restoration process. BP's Melick says the company has "made the commitment to be here as long as it takes. We're the responsible party, until we reach that point where it's over."

Robert Turpin of Escambia County is hopeful but not convinced he's seen the last of the spill's effects. "There's still a substantial amount of oil unaccounted for," he says. "There's still a concern. When is that oil going to show itself? No one wants to be out there and have their vessels affected by that. We sure hope we've seen the end of it. As a native and a marine biologist and a marine-resources division manager, I've had enough oil to last the rest of my life. I never want to see anything remotely like this again in my lifetime." 

— Published: April/May 2012

Catching Up

In 2010, Chris Edmonston of the BoatUS Foundation spoke to people involved in recreational boating along the Gulf Coast to see how things were going. His story appeared in our December 2010 issue. We checked back with some of these folks in 2012 to see what's happened to them since. Here's what they told us.

Billy Nicholas, Owner, Venice Fishing Lodge, Venice, Louisiana

Photo of Billy Nicholas and a friend with their catch Billy Nicholas, right, says the fish have returned in droves.

The fish came back to Louisiana right away, Nicholas says, but he's still waiting on the fishermen. Business was down about 60 percent from pre-spill levels in 2011, but it's a perception he's fighting against — the fishing is just fine. Redfish have rebounded in greater numbers than before the spill, and after a slow start to the 2011 trout season (due, Nicholas thinks, to a higher-than-normal river), numbers there were also back up in the fall.

"By October of 2010, fishing was back to normal," Nicholas says, "but people just weren't coming down. There was a lot of misinformation during the spill. Everybody was under the impression, across the United States, that the fishery was destroyed, that there wasn't any fish in there. That was far from the truth. It was as good as it was before the spill and the only thing missing was the anglers. A lot of our customers didn't return. People would call up and the first question they'd ask was 'Are y'all able to fish? Are there any fish left?' It was a tough deal for us to overcome. We're still trying to overcome it."

Peggy Van Sleen, Co-owner, Emerald Coast Sailing School and Charter Company, Pensacola, Florida
Photo of Peggy Van Sleen getting a big hug Business for 2011 dropped by about half for Van Sleen's Charter company. Pensacola hotels, she says, stayed full, but chartering a boat takes a little more planning than hopping in the car, and last year, her regulars went elsewhere. The smaller crowds made for great sailing, though, and many of those who did venture down to Emerald Coast in 2011 ended up extending their stay.

"For us it was ridiculously slow," she says, "but the water was gorgeous." Van Sleen says people tend to book their sailing vacations six months in advance, and in January 2012, when she spoke to BoatUS Magazine, bookings for the spring were a lot better. "It's not quite pre-oil spill levels yet," she says, "but it's a lot better than last year. A lot of our regulars who didn't come back last year are starting to come back. I think a lot of people took a year off from their annual pilgrimage down here, but they're coming back, and our traffic is definitely showing that. I think we're going to get back to where we expected it to be in 2010."