Twenty years ago, when Chris Verlinde was new to Florida Sea Grant’s University of Florida Extension Service, she started Sea Grass Awareness Day in Santa Rosa County. Ever since, she has been educating residents about their environment and local waterways, planning and securing funding for living shorelines projects and spearheading local estuary monitoring programs.
This year, Chris is joining many throughout the Gulf Coast region to “Embrace the Gulf.” The Gulf of Mexico Alliance launched the campaign in January as an effort to showcase the importance of the Gulf of Mexico and highlight five areas of influence: resilient coastal communities, prosperous industries, superior educational opportunities, thriving tourism and healthy ecosystems. The campaign continues through 2020, with 365-day online messaging and events scheduled throughout the five U.S. Gulf states: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
The kind of collaboration GOMA fosters is vital not only to the programs Chris administers, but to the health of the natural resources, she says.
“Working regionally is huge,” she says, adding that learning from those working in other states is important and makes sense.
“The Gulf is a region in itself,” Chris explains. “We all share the resource. The knowledge of what they are doing, how they are managing issues and working on regional projects is really impactful.”
The alliance is a regional partnership focused on sustaining and promoting the resources of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a nonprofit led by a network of federal agencies, academic groups, businesses and other nonprofits from the five coastal states.
GOMA started gearing up in 2004 as part of the U.S. Ocean Commission. Relationships established across state lines and between agencies and industries proved especially valuable when responding to events such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill in 2010.
Chris says the effort is more timely than ever as the alliance celebrates a yearlong campaign that focuses on the importance and the resilience of the Gulf. With negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic so prevalent, organizers believe it’s critical to look for positive messages.
Just as the resilience of the Gulf of Mexico and all it touched was tested 10 years ago following the Deepwater Horizon incident, Florida’s communities and economy are tested today by the COVID-19 crisis. Some spring events have been canceled or rescheduled. Tourism, retail, oil and gas, and other industries in Florida and the other Gulf states have suffered.
But times like these bring the resilience of the region’s people and resources to the forefront.
Coordinators like Chris and others from each of the five Gulf states continue to plan events, spread the word and, through their efforts, celebrate the Gulf.
“The Gulf of Mexico is an astonishingly valuable natural resource,” says Laura Bowie, executive director of GOMA. “It supports 60 million people who live and work throughout the Gulf’s coastal region and an even greater number of people who visit. As an organization, the alliance wants to ensure positive messages are shared about its wealth of resources and its importance to our economy and our culture. To put it simply, we are investing our time and our resources to ‘do good things for the Gulf.’ We know healthy ecosystems are the foundation for healthy economies.
“GOMA is proud to embark on a campaign to promote the vitality, sustainability, beauty and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico. In the year that represents an anniversary for a variety of natural and man-made hazards, we now find ourselves in another crisis that extends well beyond our region. It is yet another reason to celebrate the resilience of this amazing resource.”
Gulf state governors, mayors, agency directors and business leaders from all along the Gulf Coast have signed proclamations pledging their support for the 2020 campaign.
The public is encouraged to get involved by engaging with the alliance (@GOMAlliance) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where it shares daily Gulf-related messages and images, and promotes Embrace the Gulf happenings.
Events and activities associated with the campaign include efforts to restore coastlines, rehabilitate wildlife, improve water quality and strengthen communities. Additional campaign elements include state-specific education and cleanup events and a regional Paddle the Gulf ecotourism opportunity.
An avid boater and kayaker, Chris is passionate about ecotourism. When not developing programs that get students and citizens involved in sea grass preservation, sea turtle protection and boating safety, she likely is out on the water with her family.
Loving the resources as she does, it’s only natural for her to share her knowledge through her work.
“The goal is to create awareness about the importance,” she says, noting that applies whether it’s through programs such as Sea Grass Awareness Day or the Embrace or the Gulf campaign.
For Chris, sea grasses offer the perfect analogy.
“Without the ecosystem services they provide, we wouldn’t have seafood,” she says. “We wouldn’t have clean water.”
Likewise, without cooperative efforts among states, programs such as the one Chris oversees—and the resources they promote—would suffer greatly.
Today, GOMA represents more than 1,000 people from across the region who work together daily to address what are considered priority regional issues. Those issues include conserving and restoring habitats, improving the health of wildlife and fisheries, enhancing coastal resilience, improving data access and baseline monitoring, increasing stewardship and improving water quality.
Everyone from this diverse mix of business, industry and government has individual goals, but each is committed to working toward broader goals of the long-term sustainability of the Gulf, its resources and its communities.
“What does the Gulf of Mexico mean to you?” Laura asks when discussing people’s readiness to support GOMA and its Embrace the Gulf efforts. “For those of us that live along her sandy shores, it means a sense of place. It is a bit of who we are. It’s hard to move away.”
She adds, with a smile, “For me, it means I always know which way is south. For others, it may be a fond childhood memory of family vacations, and for still others it’s an important place to come to conduct business. All of these things are accurate. All of these are reasons to celebrate this special resource found only here on our shores. All the more reason to embrace the Gulf.”