Spring 2019 – Guest Frequently Asked Questions

(From Spring 2019 Newsletter) Dr. Jessica Henkel, science advisor and coordinator with the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, established through the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, answered a few questions about her research in the Gulf and her work with the Council.

Question: Please tell us about your graduate research. How did you get interested in this area of science, and how did you become involved in research focused on the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? (Dr. Henkel received the James D. Watkins Student Award for Excellence in Research at the 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science (GoMOSES) conference!)

Answer: My graduate research focused on how environmental changes and habitat degradation are impacting the coastal habitats of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and the effects these changes are having on the bird populations that migrate through them. I began my Ph.D. studies in ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University in the spring of 2010 and was in the process of developing my first field season studying near-arctic breeding migratory shorebirds stopping over in the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster began. Given the timing, my research focus had to shift to also incorporate looking at oil spill effects. In my dissertation research I used plasma metabolites and mark-recapture modeling to study the ecology of shorebirds in the northern Gulf of Mexico and the potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on those populations.

Throughout my graduate research I observed first-hand the impacts that environmental- and human-mediated disasters, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, can have on coastal habitats as well as on the communities that rely on healthy ecosystems to make their living. This perspective led to my interest in advancing science policy for coastal restoration, and I have been lucky enough to be a part of that work at the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

Question: Can you share a bit about the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council and your role as science advisor and coordinator? What is the Council’s connection with the Centers of Excellence, also established through the RESTORE Act?

Answer: The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, known as the RESTORE Council, was established as part of the 2012 Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act). The RESTORE Act calls for a regional approach to restoring the long-term health of the valuable natural ecosystem and economy of the Gulf Coast region, and dedicates 80 percent of civil and administrative penalties paid under the Clean Water Act in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund for ecosystem restoration, economic recovery, and tourism promotion in the Gulf Coast region. The RESTORE Council consists of the governors of the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas; the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, the Army, Commerce, Homeland Security, and the Interior; and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The RESTORE Council oversees 60 percent of the funds made available to the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund. The Council plays a key role in developing strategies and implementing projects that help ensure the Gulf’s natural resources are sustainable and available for future generations.

I began working with the RESTORE Council in 2015 as a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program Science Policy Fellow, and was hired as an official member of RESTORE Council staff in 2016. As the Science Advisor and Coordinator for the RESTORE Council, I am part of an exceptional interdisciplinary team of scientists, policy advisors, grant administrators, and other specialists who work together to support the development and implementation of the RESTORE Council’s restoration activities. My work involves a variety of tasks related to facilitating the development of science policy for RESTORE Council-funded activities. I work with the Council members and their agencies’ technical staff across the Gulf to integrate science into every stage of the planning, funding, and implementation of Council-funded activities, including the ecological monitoring and data management. In addition, a lot of my time goes into coordinating science with other restoration and science agencies across the Gulf, to ensure that we are leveraging activities and building on one another’s efforts.

In addition to establishing the RESTORE Council, the RESTORE Act also dedicates 2.5 percent of the Trust Fund to the Centers of Excellence Research Grants Program, administered by the Department of the Treasury. The RESTORE Council’s work intersects with the Centers of Excellence and other restoration and science agencies in the Gulf through several coordination efforts in the Gulf, including the Gulf Funders Science Coordination Forum and the Council’s Monitoring and Assessment Program. The Council Monitoring and Assessment Program is a Council-funded effort led by USGS and NOAA that fosters collaboration with the Gulf states, including the Centers of Excellence, as well as federal and local partners, academia, non-governmental/non-profit organizations, and business and industry.

Question: From your perspective as the science advisor and coordinator with the Council, what do you think the legacy of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative will be?

Answer: My work has given me first-hand experience in the application of science to restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico region. A better understanding of region-specific impacts related to petroleum pollution and related stressors to Gulf ecosystems can inform more effective regional approaches to restoration and tell a long-term story of recovery in the years following the spill. Through GoMRI-funded research efforts, a baseline of scientific knowledge and a robust scientific community has been established. Alongside long-term restoration efforts, this foundation of enhanced knowledge and capacity will continue to shape future monitoring, research, and response efforts for years to come.

Long-term data management and accessibility is a critical element of this scientific foundation. GoMRI’s open- data sharing policies and the GRIIDC repository create an opportunity for a variety of stakeholders to access and leverage the data collected by funded projects and programs to inform policy, response efforts, and research.

Over the years, GoMRI research partnerships and the annual GoMOSES conferences have fostered collaboration through information sharing and strengthened professional ties. These relationships support better-connected research efforts and interdisciplinary problem-solving. I know I have personally benefited from these interactions as a graduate student, a science policy fellow, as well as in my current position with the RESTORE Council. Strong, diverse professional networks for scientists – region-wide and across disciplines – are especially important to the development and implementation of long-term, holistic restoration efforts that impact entire geographic regions or watersheds.

Overall, I see the legacy of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative as multifaceted and dynamic. It has provided easily accessible and high-quality baseline of scientific knowledge and capacity that may be used to evaluate restoration activities and inform future decision-making in the Gulf and beyond for decades to come.

[Back to the Spring 2019 Newsletter]