Gulf of Mexico Guardians Recognized
STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Mississippi, September 7, 2009 (ENS) - The Veracruz Coral Reef System National Park and the National Coral Reef Institute are being honored with a first place Gulf Guardian Award for 2009 in the Bi-National category, the U.S. EPA's Gulf of Mexico Program has announced.

The 2009 Gulf Guardians hold a special significance this year as they will be awarded on the 10th Anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico Program’s Gulf Guardian Awards Program.

A ceremony honoring 21 winners in seven categories will be held on the evening of October 29, 2009, in the Magnolia Ballroom at the Beau Rivage Resort in Biloxi, Mississippi. The awards ceremony is being held in conjunction with the Oceans '09 International Conference.

The Veracruz Coral Reef System National Park consists of 17 reef structures covering 200 square miles (52,000 hectares) surrounding the port of Veracruz, Mexico.

Established as Mexico's first national marine park in 1992, the Veracruz Coral Reef System is among the most at-risk reefs in the wider Caribbean area.

Reefs in the park receive freshwater runoff from multiple sources but primarily from two major river systems, which carry heavy sediment as well as agricultural, industrial and sewage loads. Further impacts include ship groundings, oil spills, port construction and heavy fishing pressure.

Marine life in the Veracruz Coral Reef System National Park (Photo courtesy Explorando Mexico)

The National Coral Reef Institute is collaborating with the Veracruz Coral Reef System National Park in an ongoing project that began three years ago to assess fish and corals within the park and correlate their distribution and health with freshwater runoff. This information is critical for evaluating the extent of human impacts and establishing resource management strategies.

Another first place Gulf Guardian Award for 2009 in the Bi-National category goes to The Gulf of Mexico Foundation’s Science & Spanish Club Network. This extracurricular informal education program uses critical habitat watersheds and shared ecosystems as the framework for developing environmentally engaged youth in grades 4-12 from primarily coastal and rural communities in Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and St. Croix. Young people in Colorado, Montana and Minnesota are expected to join the program soon.

The Gulf of Mexico Program began in 1988 to protect, restore, and maintain the health and productivity of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem in economically sustainable ways.

The Gulf of Mexico Program is underwritten by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is a non-regulatory, inclusive consortium of state and federal government agencies and representatives of the business and agricultural communities, fishing industry, scientists, environmentalists, and community leaders from all five Gulf states. The program seeks to improve the environmental health of the Gulf in concert with economic development.

Bryon Griffith, director of the Gulf of Mexico Program said, “The Gulf Guardian Awards Program is in its 10th year of honoring citizens, governments and businesses throughout the five state Gulf Region for outstanding environmental achievements."

"Our 2009 award winners are truly an inspiration and exemplify the high quality of projects being done that generate as much excitement and pride as the award winners did in the beginning," said Griffith. With the addition of the Bi-National Gulf Guardian award in 2005, we now appropriately pay tribute to the bond we share in protecting this treasured resource with our southern neighbors and friends.”

In the Individual Category, Kerry St. Pé, a native of Port Sulphur, Louisiana, and resident of Raceland, Louisiana, will receive the first place Gulf Guardian Award for 2009.

Director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, St. Pé oversees the BTNEP Management Conference, all areas of education and public outreach, management decisions, and guidance in coastal protection and restoration of the area between the levees of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers.

St. Pé showed leadership in the aftermath of 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita when he became the spokesperson for the lost homes, lost memories, lost lives, and lost marshes. He was one of the first people to reach Grand Isle along with the media to describe and explain the impacts of the hurricanes on the communities, the barrier shorelines and the marshes. His efforts to inform the public, the U.S. government and the world of the severe damages to the environment and human society were tireless.

His efforts extend beyond the BTNEP boundaries into the Mississippi River deltaic plain, the cheniers of southwestern Louisiana and the wetlands and coastal landscapes of surrounding Gulf states.

Acting regional administrator of U.S. EPA Region 4 Stanley Meiburg said, "The Gulf of Mexico is a priceless treasure. As a unique habitat, a place which gives pleasure to countless Americans, and a source of some of our most valuable resources, it has no equal. These Gulf Guardians who labor to protect and enhance this magnificent sea deserve our highest praise and thanks."

In the Business Category, the Gulf of Mexico Program announced that ConocoPhillips Lower 48 Philanthropic Program of Houston, Texas will receive a first place Gulf Guardian Award for its sponsorship of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation’s Down Under Out Yonder program.

For the past three years, ConocoPhillips Lower 48 Philanthropic Program has been the primary sponsor of the 14-year-old Down Under Out Yonder program, which introduces teachers to the ecology of coastal habitats and coral reefs of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.

In partnership with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, this year the Gulf of Mexico Foundation initiated the first Teachers' Intracoastal Waterway Expedition. Teachers from 10 states participated in expeditions on-board the M/V Fling, a 118-foot live-aboard vessel.

These programs aim to leave educators with ways to actively involve their students in the learning process, to expose them to coastal ecology, and to share personal experiences about working and living in coastal communities.

The U.S. EPA Gulf of Mexico Program initiated the Gulf Guardian awards in 2000 as a way to recognize and honor the businesses, community groups, individuals, and agencies that are taking positive steps to keep the Gulf healthy, beautiful and productive.

A first, second, and third place award are given each year in seven categories - individual, business, youth and education, nonprofit organizations, government, partnership and bi-national efforts.

"The Gulf Guardian Awards recognize the positive efforts to protect the important natural resources the Gulf of Mexico holds," said Acting Regional Administrator Lawrence Starfield of U.S. EPA Region 6. "By preserving this vital resource, this year's winners are gaining benefits for all Americans."

Each of the 21 winners receives a marble and glass memento, press coverage on their projects, and recognition by their peers. First place winners also receive a professional three-minute video about their work.

Click here to see lists of all Gulf Guardian Award winners for 2009.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.