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Charting the Gulf: Analyzing the Gaps in Long-term Monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico

Ocean Conservancy has created Charting the Gulf: Analyzing the Gaps in Long-term Monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico to better enable scientists and decision-makers to track the health of the Gulf of Mexico. This analysis is a comprehensive review of what priorities are and are not being monitored in the Gulf.


According to Alexis Baldera, conservation biologist at Ocean Conservancy and co-author of Charting the Gulf, “One of the most surprising lessons I learned from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was how many major gaps exist in our understanding of the Gulf. These must be addressed in order to understand if restoration is successful. Just like a doctor needs a patient’s history to effectively track treatment of an injury, we need a complete picture of the health of the Gulf of Mexico in order to restore this special place.”

Findings from Charting the Gulf reveal that that Gulf’s wildlife and habitats in the offshore environment are not monitored to the same degree as those in the coastal areas. This monitoring is vital for species like bottlenose dolphins, which will likely need 40-50 years to fully recover, along with deep-water corals, which could need as much as hundreds of years to improve.

“We have to take the guesswork out of restoring the Gulf. This means putting robust and effective monitoring in place to track recovery and progress. It’s the smart, responsible way forward,” said Bethany Kraft, director of the Gulf Restoration Program at Ocean Conservancy. “This analysis reveals that our collective knowledge about the Gulf of Mexico is surprisingly low and likely inadequate to monitor long-term restoration efforts in the aftermath of the BP oil disaster, which was the greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history.”

From the biggest sperm whale to the tiniest plankton, we are missing information on some of the Gulf’s most iconic creatures. Scientists are still discovering new species of marine life - like anglerfish - that live in the deepest reaches of the ocean. Other animals in the Gulf, like oysters, have been monitored for decades. However, because oyster monitoring has focused on how many we’re collecting for food and if they are safe to eat, we often don’t capture the other benefits oysters provide to communities such as filtering our waters, protecting our shorelines and providing shelter for fish and crabs.

According to Kraft, “When our team collected the extensive inventory of monitoring activities in the Gulf and then saw how many critical gaps exist despite all the data we have, I realized that coordination and information sharing is every bit as important as the science itself when it comes to having the information you need to make good decisions. A lot of money is being spent on the Gulf right now and we need to spend some of this on addressing the holes in our understanding of the ecosystem. A small investment now will pay dividends in terms of picking the best restoration projects over the course of the next couple of decades.”

With this new report, Ocean Conservancy hopes to attract the attention of decision-makers who are charged with monitoring the recovery of the Gulf’s wildlife and habitats impacted by the BP oil disaster, including the RESTORE Council, Deepwater Horizon Trustees, National Fish and Wildlife Federation and other Gulf leaders. Restoration decision-makers will be able to use the analysis as a tool to help identify the most pressing needs in monitoring, such as mapping the Gulf seafloor to better understand what is beyond the shore, and expanding costal monitoring to understand not just how shorelines are changing but why.

According to Baldera, “Our Gulf leaders are now tasked with restoring Gulf wildlife and the environment, which is why it is important to monitor the progress and recovery of the Gulf ecosystem. Unless we fill the gaps in our knowledge about the wildlife and wild places in the Gulf, it will remain difficult to track their heath. This is the only way to know if the significant investments we are making in restoration are successful.”

Baldera adds, “If we invest now, in five years we can have an integrated system for ecosystem monitoring, so that efforts are coordinated across projects and funding sources. We will also be able to gauge the success of our restoration projects so that we may adopt them as needed, thus preparing for future events like climate change. Overall, we will gain a deeper understanding of the Gulf, which we depend on for work, fun and our way of life.”

To access Charting the Gulf: Analyzing the Gaps in Long-term Monitoring of the Gulf of Mexico, click here.


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