September 2, 2014  

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Mississippi Universities Ready to Help Restore the Gulf

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All of us who respect and admire the natural beauty of the Gulf of Mexico want to see this important piece of the world’s oceans restored to its pre-oil spill magnificence.

Thankfully, a bill passed by the U.S. Congress this summer will go a long way toward bringing that objective to reality.

The Transportation Bill (also designated as the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act" or “MAP-21”) included an amendment called the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourism Opportunities and Revived Economy of the Gulf Coast (RESTORE) Act. With overwhelming support from both parties, this historic act guarantees that 80 percent of the penalties recovered from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will return to the five Gulf Coast states to fund environmental and economic restoration activities.

This bill was a game-changer for the Gulf of Mexico.  We should all be proud of our Mississippi delegation in Washington, for it was Senators Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and Representative Steven Palazzo, who co-sponsored RESTORE and fought tirelessly to see it passed.   

Understanding the environmental effects of the oil spill and restoring the Gulf are an imperative. Our scientific understanding of the Gulf may be far behind our Atlantic, Pacific and even Great Lakes counterparts, but we do understand that a healthy Gulf ecosystem equals a healthy Gulf economy.

The Gulf of Mexico accounts for 78 percent of the shrimp harvest, 62 percent of the oysters, 44 percent of all recreational harvests in the US.  The Gulf produces over 50 percent of the US domestic oil and gas, and 15 of the top 50 shipping ports are located in Gulf states. The bounties of the Gulf are extraordinary, but decades if not centuries, of pressure have left the Gulf of Mexico in a vulnerable place. Passage of the RESTORE Act will begin to make right the Gulf economy and the Gulf ecosystem.

RESTORE not only sends funds to the Gulf, but it trusts the Gulf states to make decisions on how best to utilize these resources. Here, too, we are proud of our state leadership and the vision of Gov. Bryant to invest RESTORE funds in a way that links economic development to environmental restoration. The recently announced National Oceans and Applications Research Center, or NOARC, will be a major engine of economic development supporting long-term monitoring of the Gulf.

I am especially excited that RESTORE provides funding for a Mississippi Center of Excellence dedicated to scientific studies of the Gulf.  Since the 1980s, the University of Southern Mississippi has served as Mississippi’s flagship marine sciences institution. With researched-based graduate programs in marine science and coastal sciences, and significant facilities along the Gulf Coast, Southern Miss is prepared to lead the Mississippi Center of Excellence. 

Harnessing research expertise in fisheries, wetlands, and ocean science and monitoring and in partnership with the other state research universities, we can apply new technologies for the long-term study of the Gulf to assure restoration efforts are effective. Never again will we have an oil spill or hurricane and not know the impacts for lack of comprehensive understanding.

I hope everyone in Mississippi will applaud the vision of our elected officials as we move forward to create a strong, long-lasting ocean monitoring and technology corridor to provide a sound, science-based foundation for the long-term management of our valuable Gulf resources.  Mississippi’s universities are poised to play a pivotal role in that effort.

Denis Wiesenburg is Provost and a Professor of Marine Science at the University of Southern Mississippi.  He has been involved with five different oil spills during his career.