Finding 6.1. The funding from the settlements stemming from the DWH oil spill, coupled with public- and private-sector investment, present an unprecedented opportunity to create research and restoration programs that could establish a level of understanding and baseline information about the GoM that may overcome the challenges faced in fully evaluating ecosystem services in this vulnerable region.
The early recognition of the DWH oil spill as an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportion led to a rapid response by researchers from many sectors. As outlined in the Interim Report (NRC, 2011), immediately after the spill began, the federal government initiated a large-scale sampling program to fulfill its obligation to assess the injury to the public under the NRDA process. The data collected in support of NRDA represent some of the most comprehensive sampling that has ever been done in the GoM. As discussed in the Interim Report and in Chapter 2, these data are intended to support traditional damage assessment approaches (i.e., losses are generally measured in simple ecological terms rather than in terms of reductions in the value of ecosystem services), and therefore may not be directly useful for enhancing our understanding of ecological production functions and ecosystem services. Data collection and analyses continue under NRDA, and some of the data have been made public,8 but many of the results will remain confidential until litigation is complete. Nonetheless, once fully available to the public and the research community, the NRDA data sets will inevitably be an invaluable addition to the overall database and understanding of the GoM.
Along with the federal government, researchers from private industry, universities, research institutions, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) moved as quickly as possible to begin the scientific assessment of the oceanic and onshore processes and impacts. Methodologies included collection of biota census data (with multiple variables), the Before and After Control Impact (BACI) approach (in those situations where scientists were able to assess habitats before and after exposure to the oil), comparisons of assorted environmental variables to long-term data, if available, and deployment of sensitive and state-of-the-art instrumented arrays in the deep ocean and atmosphere. Although the process is still young, the research results, unless confidential, are being published with unprecedented speed in highly respected peer-reviewed journals. The research will continue, and findings about the impacts of the spill and the fate of the GoM ecosystem will be communicated for years to come. However, at some point in time, the mandate for the liable entities and the resource managers to conduct oil-spill-related research and interpret the findings will most likely be removed.
As outlined above, the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) has funded eight regionally led consortia to conduct leading-edge research on the GoM. GoMRI, in cooperation with a Research Board, administers the research funds to ensure high scientific standards and to isolate the research programs from the funding source. Research projects focused on the following tasks: