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Deepwater Horizon restoration group spreading settlement funds beyond the Gulf

The Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group was awarded $1.2 billion in a settlement agreement with BP. It has leeway to spend that money outside areas directly impacted by the oil spill, including on bird nesting grounds in the Midwest.

(CN) — In the state of Minnesota, some 1,100 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, a wildlife project is being funded with $7.5 million in settlement money from BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In the adjacent Dakotas, a separate but similar project was awarded $6.2 million. 

Both projects are being managed by the Open Ocean Trustee Implementation Group, one of seven TIGs created by the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council with the intent of spending up to $8.8 billion in damages BP agreed to pay as part of a 2016 settlement agreement. Five of the TIGs are designed to help each Gulf state directly impacted by the spill, while a sixth focuses on regional projects along the Gulf Coast. 

“The Open Ocean TIG is the only TIG that can implement restoration projects outside of the Gulf Coast region,” said Nanciann Regalado, public outreach coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in an interview. “The Open Ocean TIG can do this because the injury assessment documented deaths of non-Gulf of Mexico nesting birds, such as common loons.”

With its haunting and unmistakable calls, distinctive plumage and bright red eyes, the common loon is one of the most recognizable waterfowl in North America. It’s not an endangered species, or even threatened, according to the FWS. But the common loon was among the 93 species of birds with injuries or mortalities documented during the oil spill, as it follows a winter migration pattern from the far reaches of North America to the Gulf of Mexico. Typically, females can lay one or two eggs per year. Banded loons have been documented to live between 10 and 30 years.

“Based on documentation and a lot of modeling, we estimated that more than 84,000 birds were killed by the spill and many others were injured,” Regalado said. 

Particularly affected, according to the Open Ocean TIG’s first restoration plan and environmental assessment released in 2019, were brown and white pelicans, laughing gulls, Audubon’s shearwaters, northern gannets, clapper rails, black skimmers, white ibis, double-crested cormorants, common loons, and several species of terns. 

A heavily oiled heron in Plaquemines Parish, La., is seen on June 26, 2010, after being rescued from the waters of Barataria Bay, which became laden with oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

The $6.2 million project in the Dakotas focuses on the black tern, a small shorebird whose population has notably declined in recent decades. As Regalado explained, an important approach to restoring birds is to facilitate additional reproduction and/or reduce mortality and one important technique to achieve that goal is by enhancing their nesting and foraging habitat.  

The common loon’s nesting grounds in Minnesota and elsewhere are increasingly encroached upon by human development, habitat degradation and climate change. As a part of the Open Ocean TIG’s annual meeting Oct. 6, there will be a special session featuring public engagement work by the Restoration of Common Loons Project, updating the progress of work in Minnesota, where benchmarks include acquiring breeding habitat, providing artificial nesting platforms, and reducing loon exposure to lead-based fishing tackle.

As of December 2021, the project had expended roughly $844,000 of its $7.5 million allocation. More broadly, the Open Ocean TIG was awarded some $1.2 billion in the settlement agreement, and bird restoration comprises just $70 million of its allocation. The TIG also has a $400 million budget to spend on projects targeting fish and water column invertebrates, $273 million to spend on deep water reefs and habitats on the ocean floor and a combined $125 million to spend on marine mammals, sea turtles and sturgeon. 

The settlement money pays out in installments over 15 years and as of May 2022, the Open Ocean TIG had received approximately $518 million in settlement funds. Of that, the group has committed more than $340 million for a total of 30 restoration projects and activities, according to Katie Wagner, public affairs specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“The Open Ocean TIG is implementing several projects to restore oceanic fish, whales, dolphins, and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico,” Wagner said. “For example, two projects are focused on working with Gulf fishermen who have volunteered to help test new devices and techniques designed to reduce unintentional bycatch while maintaining target catch. This year, the TIG initiated four projects to develop techniques that will help to restore deep-sea coral habitats that were injured across a large area of the Gulf.”

Across other TIGs, the Regionwide Restoration Area had allocated roughly $103.7 million of its $350 million in anticipated restoration funds, or 29%; Alabama has committed 66% of its $295 million; Florida has committed 36% of its $680 million; Mississippi has committed 55% of its $295 million; Texas has committed 46% of its $238 million and Louisiana, which was awarded more than half of the total settlement, has committed $1.38 billion of its $4.9 billion share, or roughly 28%.

Separately, Gulf states were also awarded billions of dollars in other pots of funding unrelated to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process. Settlement money has been spent on enhanced recreational opportunities, water quality improvement projects, coastal and marine resource protection and habitat conservation, among other things. 

“The spill did catastrophic damage to natural resources of the Gulf region, including to migratory birds and other species that may nest or reproduce in other areas of the country,” Regalado said. “We have a responsibility to do what we can to mitigate those injuries. The restoration is ongoing and takes time but the TIGs take it very seriously.”

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