Some 160 kilometers of oyster reefs are being built along the Alabama coast to help mitigate effects of the 2010 BP oil spill. In front of one barrier island, concrete reef balls and bags filled with oyster shells now absorb wave action that had chewed a foot-high edge on the island’s marshy shoreline. Accumulating sediment is extending the marsh, and scientists report oyster recruitment and increased bird and fish activity around the sites.

“Every mile of reef we put in protects about 10 acres of coastal habitat,” says Judy Haner, director of marine and freshwater programs for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, which is collaborating on the reefs with the Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Baykeeper and The Ocean Foundation. “This project has great potential to be replicated and used to advance large-scale restoration efforts across the Gulf of Mexico.”

Research shows that oyster reefs protect and stabilize shoreline, enhance estuary productivity, capture suspended sediment and improve water quality. During the past 100 years nearly 90 percent of natural oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico have been removed, the shell used for roadbeds and construction, or lost due to overfishing and declining water quality. This loss left the entire marine ecosystem more vulnerable to damage from the five-million-barrel Gulf oil spill in 2010. Oysters—sedentary organisms particularly susceptible to harm from oil and dispersant exposure—were also directly affected, with decreased recruitment of oyster larvae throughout the northern Gulf in 2010, 2011 and the fall of 2012. Building oyster reefs will not only help restore those losses, but make the Gulf system as a whole healthier and more resilient.

The reef effort is the kind of science-based project many Gulf stakeholders had in mind when they pushed for a federal act, called RESTORE, that allocated to Gulf restoration much of the potentially billions of dollars in fines and penalties that will be paid by those responsible for the oil spill.

It may be the exception more than the rule, however, according to participants at the State of the Gulf of Mexico Summit. Held in Houston in March, the summit was the latest of many gatherings to discuss restoration of this economically and ecologically important body of water. Some 400 attendees from government, industry, science and nongovernmental organizations focused on how to ensure that restoration efforts are backed by sound science.

There is as yet no process for making that happen. Neither the Gulf states nor the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, tasked with developing and implementing a comprehensive recovery plan, have committed to any kind of independent peer review process, according to Larry McKinney, director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi, host of the summit. Such scientific review would not only give projects the best chance for success, but would shield decision makers from pressure to fund projects for purely political reasons. “It would be very easy for states to use RESTORE funds as merely a way to pay for projects for which they did not have sufficient funding from other sources,” McKinney says. “That would be a great disappointment and clearly not what was intended by the legislation. We have a rare opportunity to address ecosystem issues on a grand scale—and to step away from that opportunity in order to address more provincial needs may be understandable but would be a singular failure.”

Developing a comprehensive restoration plan for the Gulf as a whole would be challenging given the size and diversity of the region environmentally and economically. But scientists, institutions and agencies in the area have already begun working together on post-spill research and restoration proposals. “Saying that everything has to fit together in one big plan might be used to delay funding of projects, though,” says Mike Beck, lead scientist of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team. “I’d like to see a good plan that led to fast action rather than a great plan that took us decades.”

Others share his concern that four years on from the spill little restoration has actually been started, let alone completed. As time passes the disaster and its ongoing effects fade from the public eye. That increases the danger of fragmented restoration and politically motivated projects rather than a comprehensive, science-based approach. It also creates the risk that another disaster could divert money from the Gulf restoration pipeline. “There are many projects in the planning phase, but nothing significant actually underway, which is frustrating,” McKinney says. An initial $1-billion penalty paid by Deepwater Horizon drilling contractor Transocean, Ltd., under the Water Pollution Control Act will not be available until U.S. Treasury regulations are finalized, perhaps in September, and court action determining what penalty BP will pay is not set to start until 2015.

BP and other parties are also responsible for restoration costs under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), but scientific studies necessary to prove injury to natural resources and court decisions based on such research take years to come to fruition. In December 2013 NRDA trustees released a draft plan proposing $627 million for 44 early-restoration projects. The public comment period ended February 19, 2014, and no funds have yet been allocated, but this money will likely be the first to become available.

Other funding in the pipeline includes The National Academy of Sciences’ Gulf Research Program, established as part of legal settlements, which will receive $500 million during a five-year period to be disbursed within 30 years. Its Advisory Group is currently holding input meetings and has not provided a timetable for release of funds. Court agreements directed $2.54 billion to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which distributed $22 million in November 2013. Independent of any fines or settlements, in May 2010 BP committed $50 million per year for a decade to the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to study impacts of oil, dispersed oil and dispersant; $178 million awarded so far has resulted in several hundred published papers and more than 300 in preparation or review from various GoMRI participants.*

The early NRDA projects include oyster reef restoration in Mississippi and Alabama as well as sea grass and dune restoration in Florida, efforts that are based on sound science. But other projects lack such a foundation and the early restoration plan does not fund long-term monitoring of project success nor include a peer review process. It also does not specifically spell out or emphasize an ecosystem-wide focus, making it less likely that proposed restoration projects will take that comprehensive approach but, rather, will end up as what some at the summit termed “random acts of restoration.”

Post–Deepwater Horizon restoration efforts offer a unique opportunity to heal an entire ecosystem, one hurting from loss of habitat, water pollution and overfishing even before the spill. Building oyster reefs in Alabama is a start; large-scale, Gulf-wide oyster reef restoration would be even better.

*Correction (6/6/14): This paragraph was edited after posting. The original erroneously stated that the funding was slated for the Gulf of Mexico University Research Collaborative (GoMURC).