As a young graduate student studying marine science in India, I first learned of Mote Marine Laboratory by reading scientific papers published by some of the lab’s greatest scientists. Genie Clark, Perry Gilbert, Charles Breder, Bill Tavolga and others enjoyed eminent reputations in their fields and had built an international reputation for the small lab, then located off Midnight Pass, on Siesta Key.
In 1978, I was fortunate to be able to join Mote as a senior scientist and become its director and CEO in 1986. All told, I’ve called this region of paradise home for nearly 40 years, including 15 years as a Siesta Key homeowner with my wife, Linda, raising our three sons, Andrew, Alex and Chad. (Prior to that, we spent more than 10 summers at Seaplace, on Longboat Key)
So, when The Observer’s editors recently asked me to begin writing a regular column to talk about the lab’s activities and our marine environment, I was more than happy to oblige — there’s a lot to talk about!
For all of us who live on our barrier islands and for the thousands of guests who visit each year, the Gulf of Mexico is key to our way of life. In fact, many of us choose to live here because of the Gulf and the lifestyle it affords.
As a scientist and a local resident, I’ve seen many changes during my tenure here. Some of the changes have been controversial — like the closing of Midnight Pass; others — like public support for lighting ordinances that protect nesting sea turtles and better rules governing our use of natural resources — have been good for our marine environment and its animal residents. Siesta Key was even named the country’s No. 1 beach last year!
But other events have highlighted places where we can — and must — improve. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and ensuing disastrous oil spill in 2010, which catapulted the Gulf of Mexico into the American public’s consciousness, marked an area in need of improvement.
Although this is a sad — and ongoing — human tragedy and environmental disaster, I hope that it can also become a new rallying cry for our nation. A call, perhaps, for us to come together to urge new protections and innovative economic development measures for this vital body of water that is in all of our backyards and benefits our way of life.
To this end, Mote has been leading the way to help our country re-envision the way we manage the Gulf of Mexico and all of its important resources.
It’s a task we take seriously.
The Gulf of Mexico is the most industrialized body of water in the world, supporting nationally prominent industries, commercial and recreational fisheries, cruise lines, shipping lanes and ports. It has the largest oil and natural-gas fields in the world, and recovery of proven deepwater petroleum reserves is just beginning. Overall, its contribution to our U.S. economy is more than $150 billion per annum.
And, while residents in states thousands of miles away don’t necessarily know in detail the role that the Gulf plays in their lives, they certainly play a role in its health. More than 50% of the contiguous land area in the U.S. drains into the Mississippi River, which, in turn, drains into the Gulf — into our backyard.
That’s why Mote has been leading efforts to bring stakeholders together to build consensus for new protected areas in the Gulf. We hosted the first meeting in 2008 and the second, called “Beyond the Horizon,” in 2011.
Working in partnership with the Harte Research Institute, the University of South Florida College of Marine Sciences and the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation, we were able to bring together representatives from scientific organizations, government, the oil industry, commercial and recreational fishing and other forms of on-water recreation to Sarasota to talk about the Gulf.
The result was broad agreement about the need for comprehensive use and protection plans that take the Gulf’s economic and environmental connections into consideration.
Why does management need to be comprehensive?
The Gulf is physically, biologically and socially connected to the Caribbean Sea, the U.S. East Coast and the Atlantic Ocean by the Loop Current, the Florida Current and the Gulf Stream — and, of course, by a vital network of commerce that takes place within and among the region’s nations; and, of course, politically by three nations: Mexico, U.S. and Cuba.
It also includes relics of shorelines and barrier islands.
These shores and islands were once above sea level, but now lie deep beneath its surface. They provide critical structure and habitat for animal and plant species that the Gulf’s currents carry from one place to another.
Protecting and managing just one area or one activity cannot take these physical and social connections into consideration.
On June 8, World Oceans Day, the Beyond the Horizon Gulf of Mexico Executive Committee, which I chair, released a new report detailing some critical areas that need to be addressed if we are to protect the Gulf even as we enjoy its fruits and the economic benefits it produces for our region, our state, our nation and even the world. (You can read the report at mote.org/beyondhorizon.)
Former first lady Laura Bush spoke of her support for new protections for the Gulf of Mexico during the Summit on the State of the Gulf at the Harte Research Institute in 2011, and she has continued to speak about the issue since, including during her visit to Mote earlier this year.
She and others — including the Beyond the Horizon Executive Committee — have suggested that we protect the Gulf’s sunken shorelines and islands and their connections to each other, by establishing a series of new marine sanctuaries in the Gulf.
Using the sanctuary process would allow for public input on the protections we put in place, but, more importantly, it would allow us to manage the Gulf so that it can withstand and rebound from environmental changes — and even environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon explosion — while continuing to support our human economy and our own region’s way of life.
Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, a Siesta Key resident, joined Mote Marine as senior scientist in 1978 and has been president and CEO since 1986.