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NOAA and Deepwater Horizon Trustees Report on Progress Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

November 30, 2021

Federal and state agencies are restoring the Gulf after the largest oil spill in the United States. $2.4 billion in settlement funds were committed to habitat and resource restoration through 2020. Settlement payments will continue through 2031.

On a Mississippi Gulf Coast beach looking out to the water with a pier. Federal and state partners are committed to periodically re-examining the Deepwater Horizon restoration program through programmatic reviews. Credit: Jeanne Allen/Deepwater Horizon Trustee Council

NOAA and the Deepwater Horizon federal and state Trustee agencies recently released the 2021 Programmatic Review (PDF, 97 pages). This is the first collective review of multiple years of work across this Natural Resource Damage Assessment restoration program. It is restoring habitats, fish, and wildlife impacted by the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The comprehensive program review includes analyses of restoration data collected through 2020. 

Through the end of 2020, the Trustees received approximately $2.8 billion in settlement funding. They committed approximately $2.4 billion of those funds to the planning and implementing more than 200 projects and activities. In that time period, NOAA has led or partnered with other agencies on more than 60 of them.

The review evaluated data on funding and projects focused on resources in the seven Gulf of Mexico geographies, called restoration areas. It also covers administrative and management efforts helping achieve restoration goals collaboratively, in an efficient and effective manner, with transparency and public accountability.

In an effort to identify any needed program adjustments, the review also assessed performance of the Trustees’:

  • Governance structure
  • Financial management
  • Public engagement
  • Regulatory compliance 

Overall Programmatic Review Highlights 

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Map of Gulf of Mexico states with various project locations identified with different colored dots.
More than 200 projects have been approved and are in various stages—NOAA has led more than 60. Credit: Deepwater Horizon Trustee Council

The largest funding commitments by the Deepwater Horizon restoration program through 2020 were:

  • Wetlands, coastal, and nearshore habitats ($1.3 billion)
  • Enhancing recreational opportunities ($389 million)

These were two of the 13 resource types most affected by the oil spill.  

Other key highlights of accomplishments through 2020 include:  

  • 3,870 acres of oyster habitat enhanced or restored 
  • 2,350 acres of marsh, beach and dune habitats created, restored, or enhanced 
  • 3,080 acres of habitat protected and 2,120 acres restored for bird breeding and foraging 
  • 12 sea turtle restoration projects underway
  • 74 recreation projects completed or underway 
  • 25 water quality projects completed or underway

Accomplishments Through 2020

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Aerial view of construction equipment working on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.
2,350 acres of marsh, beach and dune habitats have been restored so far, including this project in Louisiana. Credit: USFWS

Although much more has been accomplished, here are a few examples of projects and activities NOAA has played a role in and are included in the programmatic review.

Wetland, Coastal, and Nearshore Habitats

The program has created, restored, or enhanced approximately 2,350 acres of marsh, beach and dune habitats so far. NOAA has led barrier island and marsh creation, living shorelines, and other projects. They restore habitat and increase food and shelter needed for fish and invertebrates to grow and survive. In fact, one of the goals of restoring these habitats is to ensure they’re helping restore fish and invertebrate communities that use them. 

Scientific studies show that restored salt marsh habitat throughout the northern Gulf of Mexico can support substantially more fish and invertebrates than salt marsh without healthy vegetation. The programmatic review highlights that In restored Gulf salt marshes, fish and invertebrate populations can increase as much as:

  • 2–15 times more for blue crab
  • 2–20 times more for white shrimp
  • 2–10 times more for spotted seatrout
  • 4–9 times more for brown shrimp

Fish and Water Column Invertebrates

The NOAA-led Oceanic Fish Restoration Project is restoring a portion of injuries to oceanic, highly migratory fish by reducing fish mortality in the Gulf pelagic longline fishery. NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation are partnering with fishermen on this short-term project that includes an annual voluntary 6-month break from pelagic longline fishing. Participants also have options to use and learn about alternative gears that significantly reduce bycatch while still catching target fish species. Data collected from the project indicate that these commercial fishing partnerships have conserved approximately 23,000 oceanic fish, allowing them to grow and reproduce. 

There are five fish and water column invertebrate projects underway. NOAA is leading all of them. Four of these were approved in the 2019 Open Ocean restoration plan. Like the Oceanic Fish Restoration Project, these projects all involve working with various fishing communities to restore recreationally and commercially important fish species.

Marine Mammals

NOAA and state Trustee partners laid groundwork for understanding and assessing Gulf of Mexico cetaceans (dolphins and whales). NOAA partnered with state Trustees in Alabama to conduct dolphin photo-ID surveys and collect tissue samples, which will provide important population and health information. NOAA conducted similar photo-ID surveys in Barataria Bay, Louisiana to better understand the dolphin population that was heavily impacted by the oil spill. NOAA has also partnered with state Trustees and organizations in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana in supporting expanded capacity to respond to stranded animals. These partners are also providing get key insights into the causes of illness and death.

There are a total of eight marine mammal restoration projects in three restoration areas. NOAA is leading all of them in partnership with other Trustee agencies.

NOAA is using restoration funds to develop the CETACEAN data aggregation and synthesis platform. It will help managers and restoration planners design and evaluate projects more effectively and efficiently. NOAA is also developing a mathematical model to evaluate the magnitude of stressors and threats to inform restoration strategies, aimed at reducing them. Taken together, these investments in understanding cetacean populations and their many stressors and drivers will result in more effective restoration, monitoring, and measurement efforts.

Mesophotic and Deep Benthic Communities

NOAA is leading an integrated portfolio of mesophotic and deep benthic community projects (PDF, 10 pages). “Mesophotic” refers to the zone where some sunlight reaches the habitat, whereas the “deep benthic” environments are devoid of sunlight. The projects will address critical gaps in our understanding of these habitat communities. They’ll also support their management and protection, remove threats, and develop new restoration techniques. 

The projects include documenting and improving our understanding of where these communities exist and data collection and scientific studies to better understand their biology and ecology. We’re also learning how corals in these communities reproduce and developing ways we can grow and plant them to directly restore sites in the Gulf of Mexico. Information will be shared with managers and the public to improve our understanding of these communities and inform restoration, management, and protection efforts.

Sea Turtles

NOAA is leading and enhancing three existing programs through the Sea Turtle Early Restoration Project. The project is supporting coordination of the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network in the Gulf states. It is expanding capacity for stranding and emergency response, mortality investigations, and data management to better monitor and understand ongoing threats to sea turtles.

The project has increased the number of NOAA Gear Monitoring Teams . The teams work with the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery, offering courtesy outreach and gear inspections to reduce sea turtle bycatch. The new teams have conducted more than 500 courtesy inspections of Turtle Excluder Devices, which is added to fishing nets to help sea turtles escape. These inspections ensure they are properly installed and to maintain compliance rates with existing regulations. The project is also increasing observer coverage in the Gulf of Mexico shrimp trawl fishery, which helps us better understand where and when sea turtle bycatch is occurring. These and with other sea turtle restoration efforts (PDF, 14 pages), are helping NOAA and partners restore sea turtles by improving our understanding of in-water threats and working to reduce sea turtle bycatch. 

Sturgeon

NOAA is partnering with the Department of Interior and regional sturgeon researchers to conduct activities that will address data gaps (PDF, 2 pages) related to habitat use and preferences, and patterns of recruitment, growth, and survival of Gulf sturgeon.

We are leading efforts to review and compile existing Gulf sturgeon stock data assessment to provide baseline information on population sizes and trends. We are also improving tools and practices that will allow more consistent data to be collected in the future. 

These efforts will help us prioritize restoration activities and evaluate the success of future restoration efforts.

Other Recent and Notable NOAA Efforts

The Deepwater Horizon Trustees have committed to periodically re-examining the restoration program through programmatic reviews like this. The full document, and it’s complementary interactive story map are available at the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Spill Restoration website.