She is speaking of New Orleans, and expressing a concern she had well before the Deepwater Horizon exploded in April 2010, killing 11 men and going on to spill more barrels of oil than any marine accident in history.

Brown grew up in the city, and has witnessed troubling changes to this very rich and important ecosystem.

“The Deepwater Horizon accident has shined a spotlight on an area that has had tremendous habitat loss over the decades,” says Brown. “I grew up fishing these wetlands. I’ve seen through the years what was once expanses of marsh that we’d get lost in, turn into open water. And it’s heartbreaking, frankly, to see an entire ecosystem and way of life disappearing right in front of our eyes.”

Brown is the director of the Gulf of Mexico program for The Nature Conservancy, and the sinking of Louisiana is a big part of the conservation puzzle Brown and her colleagues are trying to solve in a place where human economies are intricately tied to the natural resource base and the major industries (e.g., shipping, navigation, oil and gas) that rely on that base. When those resources are jeopardized, so are all the human and ecological systems dependent on them.

“It’ll be interesting to see how this oil spill plays out,” says William L. Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School, who traveled to New Orleans in July to see the effects of the oil spill first-hand.

“I was struck when Hurricane Katrina hit and shut down the Port of New Orleans,” recalls Chameides. “It rippled through the energy sector throughout the country in a way that I thought was really quite sobering for Americans.”

The oil spill offers up another sobering look at the area—and a chance to ponder its ecological riches, challenges and vulnerabilities.

Looking at that bigger picture is what Brown’s team is doing as they try to move the Gulf from vulnerability to resiliency.

Connecting the Dots in the Gulf of Mexico: Wetlands, Hurricanes, Fish, Oil, Goods

Brown is no stranger to Louisiana’s naturally occurring hurricanes and tropical storms. She knows they’ve blown through for centuries, and she’s lived through her fair share over the decades. But she also understands how the severe loss of natural storm buffers puts coastal Louisiana in an ever more precarious position. When the likes of Katrina strike Louisiana’s shores these days, their potential reach and destructive force are greater than in times past because of weakened coastal defenses. Stopping the encroaching sea is critical to the area’s future.

“What we’ve seen already,” says Brown, “is a loss of about a million and a half acres of wetlands just in the delta of the Mississippi River.”

And the problem is much larger and ongoing—wetlands the size of a football field are lost about every half hour.

It was while Brown was at Duke’s Nicholas School to work on her Master of Environmental Management degree that she homed in on her long-term focus. The fi t was natural enough: wetlands and water resource management.

Since graduating, Brown has worked protecting and restoring wetlands, first at South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources and for the past 15 years at The Nature Conservancy. Stemming the loss of wetlands is an enormous challenge for the region; and wetlands loss itself, though too few realize, is a looming problem for the entire country.

Nicholas School Professor Curt Richardson, head of the Duke University Wetland Center and Brown’s former masters-project adviser, explains the linkages between the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River that opens into it, and the rest of the nation like this: “The Mississippi River … is the lifeline to the Midwest. It’s where the majority of our nation’s agricultural barge traffic comes from; all of our products go both north and south on it. … The port of New Orleans is extremely important—it’s the first thing they put into operation after Katrina.”

Continued loss of a critical component in this lifeline means potential trouble rippling through trade, energy, our seafood supply and beyond.

“Wetlands make up roughly 5 percent of the entire globe,” says Richardson, “but they control a third of the carbon in the world. In the Gulf they’re especially important because they provide about a third of the fish and shellfish for the United States and about 25-30 percent of the oil and natural gas.”

It’s all linked, he stresses, and they have to be looked at as a linked program.

Today that’s just what Brown does, finds ways to make TNC’s myriad Gulf state projects complement each other and fit into the overall goal of restoring an ecosystem vital to America.

Working to Restore the Gulf Coast Ecosystem

Brown’s work is just one piece of the Gulf’s daunting puzzle.

“The Gulf of Mexico is a huge ecosystem, and as much work as we and others have done here, we’re a long ways from restoring it to a resilient system,” says Brown.

Building on TNC’s 30 years of Gulf conservation, Brown leads projects from Texas to Florida aimed at:

  • rejuvenating wetlands with sediments and fresh water,
  • restoring lost habitat and reducing habitat destruction,
  • reducing overfishing, and
  • preventing nutrient-loading in upstream watersheds to reduce the Gulf’s huge dead zone.

Much of this work entails building coalitions, finding funding and helping the restoration community understand goals and funding priorities.

As for wetlands restoration, while there has been some progress, much more is needed.

“We’ve protected and restored about three million acres,” says Brown, “The trick now is figuring out how to scale up those projects to an effective level of conservation—and understand what more is needed.”

One such effort involves an innovative way of reviving a keystone species, which happens to be a favorite New Orleans hors d’oeuvre: the oyster.

Bringing Back Oysters to Protect Shores and Revitalize the Marine Ecosystem

When we think of oysters, different images spring to mind, depending on our frame of reference. One might picture servings on the half shell of plump Wellfleet, Bluepoint, or Malpaque, or, if in the other camp, a mouthful of slime. If one is an optimist, one might think “the world is my” or aphrodisiac. Not Brown—she thinks architects and engineers.

“Oyster reefs are very much like coral reefs,” Brown explains. “They provide habitat and structure so that soft shorelines are better protected. … We need to be smarter than we have about managing oysters and in terms of understanding their role as architects of these ecosystems.”

In 2008–09 TNC, partnering with shellfish experts around the world, studied the global extent of oysters. Their findings were astounding.

“We’ve lost 85 percent of all of our oyster reefs globally,” says Brown.

That’s not just bad news for oysters and the people who enjoy eating them. It’s bad news for the entire network of undersea life dependent on them.

Oyster banks are a biocoenose, the term coined by German zoologist Karl Mobius in 1877 for the social community he observed while studying French oyster banks. In a paper published that same year, he wrote that “oyster-beds are richer in all kinds of animal life than any other portion of the sea” and that extended disruptions to reefs would transform the entire community.

Disruptions from overfishing to coastal degradation, says the TNC report, have now pushed oyster reefs “near or past the point of functional extinction globally.” And with them goes an array of important ecosystem functions—infrastructure for various finfish and shellfish, shoreline protection and water quality.

What we also found from that study,” says Brown, “is that the northern Gulf of Mexico is pretty much the only place left in the world where we can restore this ecosystem in a timely way. It’s relatively healthy, we have a thriving commercial fi shery, and we think there is hope for not only putting oyster reefs back in this ecosystem so they provide us with all the functions that they once did but that we can have a commercial industry alongside it.”

And so The Nature Conservancy set out to introduce manmade oyster reefs behind Grand Isle, the only inhabited barrier island off Louisiana, figuring that if they built the substrate, the oysters would come.

Assembling and Oyster Reef, in 3-D

The first order of business was constructing frames for the reefs—latticed, waist-high triangles made of steel, with enough bulk that they can reduce erosion, trap sediment and rebuild marsh. Workers then fitted bags of cleaned oyster shells into the frames creating the infrastructure that oyster larvae—known as spat—are attracted to.

“Eventually,” says Brown, “what will happen is oyster spat in the water column will take hold—they’ll colonize these units. And eventually all the steel [and] plastic bags that hold the oyster shells will disintegrate and we’ll have a two- to three-foot high oyster reef that not only puts spat back in the water … but also will dissipate wave energy.”

In time, all that surface area provides great habitat for the many species, such as bluefish, redfish, Spanish mackerel, spot and striped bass, that have historically turned oyster reefs into veritable eateries, nurseries and condos.

In late April TNC and its partners began putting the shell-studded frames into the water. Two days in, the Deepwater Horizon blowout occurred, threatening the Gulf’s fragile ecosystem and putting TNC’s project on hold.

The Gulf, Before and After the Deluge of Oil

Since April, the eyes of the nation and indeed of much of the world have been trained on the Gulf, watching the accident play out in excruciating slow motion. Even with the flow finally stanched, and the Macondo well “effectively dead,” in the words of National Incident Command Admiral Thad Allen, it’s more hurry-up-and-wait to learn the extent of the damage from unleashing so many hydrocarbons into this biologically diverse area.

Meanwhile, getting on with the necessary conservation and restoration is Brown’s day-to-day challenge. She hopes the history of natural events colliding with manmade mistakes here can provide valuable conservation lessons.

“Our emphasis is to restore the Gulf of Mexico by introducing fresh water and sediments back into the delta’s marshes, looking at freshwater inflows, and doing habitat-specific restoration projects like the oyster reefs,” says Brown. “Project by project, we’re very hopeful that we can restore this ecosystem to some point of resiliency so that we don’t have such dramatic consequences when these events hit.”

Jonathan Swift wrote that the first human to eat an oyster was bold; it will take far greater boldness—and determination—to bring back the oyster. And Brown is at the fore of that cause, which is but one important piece of the longterm restoration.

“What’s lacking at this point is really the money to do that and the public will,” says Brown, adding that she hopes the accident will sustain awareness of the Gulf’s importance to all Americans.

“It’s not just people here that benefit from all that we have,” says Brown. “We produce about half the nation’s oil and gas here. Almost half of all the commercial fisheries come out of this region. The shoes on your feet were probably shipped through our ports here in south Louisiana. Once the nation understands the importance of this region to their own livelihoods, hopefully we’ll be able to generate the attention, the public will and the money that’s required to do these projects.”

Erica Rowell is managing editor of Dean Chameides’ blog, The Green-Grok. She is based in New York City.

For more about Cindy watch this video.