Many remember the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill that began on April 20th, 2010, when an explosion on a drilling platform killed 11 people and began releasing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The well leaked 134 million gallons of oil and had lasting effects on the health of the public, the environment, and the economy of the Gulf. Readers may be less aware, however, of the resulting natural resource damages settlement related to the DWH spill, which provided funds to restore and enhance fishing opportunities here in Texas.
Settlements and penalties from the spill were record-breaking. Billions of dollars of the civil and criminal penalties paid by the owners and operators of the rig (BP, Anadarko, MOEX, TransOcean and Halliburton) were allocated through new and existing government agencies to research, restore, and protect the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico. In 2016, as part of the settlement from the spill, BP agreed to pay up to $8.8 billion to the U.S. and Gulf states for damages to natural resources. Of that money, $238 million was dedicated to the Texas restoration area. These enormous sums of money may leave readers wondering, “where did that money go?”
For simplicity (and to avoid even more acronyms), the remainder of this article will focus on the settlement for natural resource damages under the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. These funds are allocated by designated federal and state agencies (trustees), working on behalf of the public, to make whole the injuries to natural resources and natural resource services resulting from the discharge of oil. Please find a complete list of trustees at the end of this article. Trustees identify projects to be funded with NRDA money, which are then implemented by organizations such as Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). Throughout this process, public comments and participation are encouraged. As part of the DWH NRDA process, 20 restoration projects in Texas have received funding so far, ranging from habitat acquisition to sea turtle rehabilitation. Saltwater anglers may be interested in projects aimed at improving recreational opportunities and ecosystem health.
Here in Texas, many of the NRDA-funded projects have benefited recreational fishing, largely through the preservation and restoration of fish habitat. The DWH spill harmed many floral and faunal species that provide food and shelter for fish. Funds have also been used to benefit anglers directly through the construction of amenities at fishing sites, such as restrooms and cleaning stations. While there are many restoration projects readers may be interested in, three projects are highlighted below: the Matagorda and Freeport artificial reefs and the improvements to Sea Rim State Park.The creation of artificial reefs enhances fishing opportunities by providing novel habitat for fish in the Gulf. In the midst of the sandy bottoms of the Gulf of Mexico, these concrete structures or sunken vessels provide a surface onto which invertebrates, such as barnacles and sponges, can attach. Once established on the blocks, the energy of the food chain flows upward, and larger fish and sharks begin to inhabit the area. As many saltwater anglers undoubtedly know, artificial reefs serve as excellent sites to catch prized fish. Adventurous Texans may even SCUBA dive to see the reefs up close.
With NRDA funding, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Artificial Reef program, a new reef was created ten miles offshore from Matagorda county in 2017. The Matagorda reef consists of over 1,600 concrete pyramids that provide habitat for a myriad of marine life. The reef sits in about 60 ft of water and now serves as habitat for snapper, grouper, mackerel, and more. In addition, NRDA funds were used to expand the existing Freeport reef in 2017. Six miles offshore from Freeport, Texas, over 800 concrete pyramids were added to the reef. Anglers are encouraged to check out the reef and the $2 million dollar additions. The Freeport and Matagorda reefs are great examples of how prioritizing fishing habitat can lead to huge benefits for our angling communities.
Sea Rim State Park is another great example of DWH money at work. The park was first established in 1977 but several amenities were added in 2019 using NRDA money. Almost $500,000 was granted to add a fish cleaning station, two wildlife viewing platforms, and a comfort station with a vault toilet. Anglers can fish from the surf, marsh, or by boat via the boat launch. Lucky visitors may also find alligators, Roseate Spoonbills, or other exciting creatures native to the area.
In addition to providing these practical amenities to anglers, Sea Rim Park also conserves important habitat for fish, such as marsh habitat. This type of habitat is vital for many juvenile and adult fish, like Red Drum and Spotted Seatrout, to forage for food and breed. By further protecting this area and ensuring that the public has the proper facilities to take advantage of this area sustainably, we can ensure that there will be ample wildlife and recreational opportunities for generations to come.
When something as disastrous as the DWH oil spill happens, it presents an opportunity to determine the value of our coastal resources and where money should be allotted to restore and preserve natural areas. NRDA is just one of many processes that serves to protect these public resources from such damages. The projects implemented as a result of DWH will both increase the resiliency of coastal ecosystems and provide recreational anglers the opportunity to take advantage of the bountiful living resources here in Texas. For more information on DWH NRDA restoration projects, please visit www.habitat.noaa.gov/storymap/dwh/.
Texas DWH NRDA Trustee agencies: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; Texas General Land Office; U.S. Department of Commerce, represented by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Department of the Interior, represented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Department of Agriculture; and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency