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Scientific minds to prioritize Gulf issues

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Sep 13,  2006

Spread out along 1,631 miles of coastline, scientists studying the Gulf of Mexico are interested in similar topics: seafood safety, fisheries, wetlands restoration and the balance between conservation and development. Yet many are unfamiliar or unaware of complimentary research being conducted in neighboring states. Now, one effort will bring them and other stakeholders together to plan and coordinate marine research in the Gulf region.

Planning, Prioritizing, and Implementing Gulf of Mexico (GOM) Regional Marine Research and Information Needs begins this summer and will continue through 2011. By the end of 2008, a strategic research plan will be completed. Plan implementation will begin in 2009.

With a $600,000 grant, the four Sea Grant College programs along the Gulf (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi-Alabama and Florida) are spearheading this effort to create the regional research and information plan. The majority of the funding is coming from the National Sea Grant Office, a federal government-university partnership program under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The four Sea Grant programs will work with state and federal agencies, non-profits and private industry along the Gulf to prioritize research and information needs and implement a strategic plan.

They also will consider ways to leverage their financial resources and in-house assets to provide the most impact in the top-priority areas. Research agencies along Mexico’s Gulf coast also are expected to participate.

“A regional research plan will help bring groups together to identify and prioritize needs and build collaborative funding agreements,” said LaDon Swann, director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium.

Regional cooperation was highlighted in the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s report, and a GOM regional research plan is in line with the commission’s recommendation that federal agencies dealing with ocean and coastal issues improve coordination and use their funding to focus on regional priorities.

“By providing a Gulf-wide research agenda in support of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, led by the governors of five Gulf states, the Gulf of Mexico Research Plan will enhance ongoing efforts such as the federal Ocean Research Priority Plan,” Swann said. “The plan also will help eliminate overlapping research efforts.”

The goal of a Gulf research plan and implementation strategy will also directly address and complement the Governors’ Action Plan. Through this plan all five Gulf of Mexico governors have formally adopted the objectives of improving water quality, conserving and restoring wetlands, expanding environmental education, improving habitat characterization and reducing nutrient inputs, all clearly benefiting from coordination and direction of the Gulf’s many research initiatives.

Jim Cato, director of Florida Sea Grant, said he expects that hundreds of stakeholders will be involved in determining the highest-priority issues in the Gulf. Cato added the plan is important because of the high level of concern for the economic and environmental sustainability of the Gulf of Mexico.

“There are a huge number of research issues in the Gulf of Mexico, and each state has all different groups working on them,” Cato said. “So, it will be good to organize the issues into designated priorities against which everyone can use their limited resources and collectively work on the most important problems.”

Margaret Davidson, co-leader of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance and director of the NOAA Coastal Services Center, said the plan will focus on the same priorities that were revealed under the Ocean Action Plan. It will help stakeholders “look at the same ensemble of priorities and customize them for the unique scientific and political challenges in the region,” she said.

The Gulf regional marine research plan was one of eight regional Sea Grant plan projects that received funding this year.

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