Oil Spill’s Chief Lesson: Diversify

Like countless people fortunate to live on or near the Gulf Coast and the millions of people who visit our shores each year, I have a tremendous fondness for the endlessly fascinating intersection of sea and sand.

For me, nothing promotes clear-headed, undistracted thinking more than a walk on the beach. Many times, too, I’ll toss a few baited hooks into the surf, plant rods in holders and wait for something to happen. It might seem like a leap of faith, throwing a spit of shrimp (or the artificial equivalent) into the vast Gulf of Mexico and expecting results, and there are those times when all remains quiet along the Gulf front.

But, often enough, comes a day when the action is fast: whiting, pompano, hardhead catfish, maybe a big black drum, rays and sharks small and not so small. The Gulf’s abundance is impressive. If we had more space, I’d tell you about the six-foot shark that I reeled in this spring before a knot of onlookers. Suffice to say, for a day and a half thereafter, my arms felt like I had returned to the gym following a prolonged absence and tried to get it all done in a day.

This edition of 850 Magazine is focused largely on the Gulf of Mexico, which has served much of Northwest Florida as its chief economic driver for generations. We explore the condition of fisheries now six years after the greatest unnatural disaster in the Gulf’s history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Editor Linda Kleindienst writes about how a five-person committee will make determinations on how $1.5 billion in damages from BP will be distributed among counties that were directly affected by the spill. And we take a look at a fish hatchery that will supplement the work of Mother Nature — or King Neptune, if you will.

Nothing ever has made more clear the 850 region’s dependence on the Gulf than the fouling of our beaches by the spill. And what we’re talking about really is a co-dependency. The Gulf depends for its health on careful, responsible stewardship by the people who tap into its resources even as thousands of people rely on the Gulf for their economic well-being.

Sen. Don Gaetz, with comments he made to editor Kleindienst, suggests that the region’s dependency on the Gulf may be too extreme. That is, the regional economy is highly vulnerable to disasters both natural and manmade, as past hurricanes and the spill demonstrated. That vulnerability can be compounded by the media, both news and social, which have a tendency to make headlines that create impressions and perceptions that are slow to go away.

Gaetz stresses, wisely so, that the stimulus provided by the $1.5 billion should be used to diversify the local economy by creating new employment and career opportunities that will make the region less fragile economically. As things now stand, the economy can be disrupted almost instantly by winds and waves — and the whims of Congress, given the critical importance of military spending to our area. The coastal economy is one that stands on two wobbly legs. We could use, as Gaetz proposes, a third and a fourth.

Thankfully, for now, the tourism industry has rebounded and fisheries have demonstrated their amazing resiliency. Some may suggest that damage to the Florida Seafood brand has not been repaired fully, but the damage does not seem to be irreparable. For sure, we are on the mend and have been.

I guess the scariest thing for me may be what we don’t know about the 4.9 million gallons of crude oil that gushed into the Gulf. A tiny percentage of that oil was removed from the environment with the remainder sent to the Gulf bottom through the use of dispersants. What is the condition of that sleeping giant? Might a hurricane-driven storm surge deliver that oil to the ribbon of sand that remains our coastal region’s lifeline?

We might shudder to find out. And we will have been sadly mistaken if we don’t use the BP windfall to shore up our defenses along the lines that Gaetz and others have suggested.

Categories: Opinion