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Gulf of Mexico Alliance

Case Authors

Sarah McKearnan, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee


The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a partnership of five Gulf States to protect their shared marine ecosystem from further environmental degradation.

The alliance got its start in 2005 through the desire of the governors of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to secure greater federal funding to tackle the Gulf’s environmental problems while retaining state control over how that money would be used.

The direct involvement of the governors coaxed institutions from the non-profit and academic sectors to support the alliance. Federal agencies also agreed to work for the alliance without trying to steer its decisions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided critical seed funding and helped streamline the involvement of 13 federal agencies in the work of the alliance.

Each state leads a cross-state team focused on making progress in addressing a specific issue. The alliance focused on completing achievable, concrete tasks in its early days to generate momentum. Its work has improved understanding of ecological problems such as the hypoxia zone, mercury in seafood, and the loss of coastal habitats. It produced two action plans and is beginning to pursue on-the-ground projects and monitor outcomes.


MEBM Attributes

  • Collaboration: Prior to the alliance, the environmental management, coastal zone and wildlife agencies in the Gulf States had limited experience working collaboratively to address ecosystem-scale threats to the Gulf’s resources.
  • Collaboration: The alliance developed the first-ever collaborative action plan for improving the health of the Gulf that includes consensus recommendations for addressing six priority issues.
  • Scale: Problems such as the hypoxic dead zone and harmful algal blooms are addressed at an ecosystem scale.
  • Complexity: The alliance is working on a suite of inter-related issues that affect this entire large marine ecosystem and uses science to inform management.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The Gulf of Mexico Alliance has no formal mission statement. It was formed to increase regional collaboration among the five Gulf States – Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas – to enhance the ecological and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico.

Mexico was not invited to join the alliance at its founding, but the Gulf States expressed their intent to use the alliance as a forum for increasing bi-national cooperation to address the Gulf’s threats.


The alliance seeks to enhance the health of the Gulf and its coastlines by addressing six common challenges:

  • Water Quality for Healthy Beaches and Seafood
  • Environmental Education
  • Nutrient Impacts to Coastal Ecosystems
  • Habitat Conservation and Restoration
  • Ecosystems Integration and Assessment.
  • Coastal Community Resiliency

Specific goals and action steps for each issue can be found in two Governors Action Plans developed by the alliance.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations


The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is composed of the following state agencies, which serve on the Alliance Management Team:

  • Florida Department of Environmental Protection
  • Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
  • Mississippi Department of Marine Resources
  • Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality
  • Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration
  • Office of the Governor, Louisiana
  • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality


The following two federal agencies participate as co-chairs of the Gulf of Mexico Regional Partnership Federal Workgroup:

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • U.S. Department of Commerce, National Atmospheric and Aeronautics Administration

Key Parties


  • Alabama Department of Environmental Management
  • Alabama Department of Public Health
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • Louisiana Department of Education
  • Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality
  • Louisiana Department of Natural Resources
  • Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
  • Texas General Land Office
  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department


  • Council on Environmental Quality
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • National Science Foundation
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture: National Resources Conservation Service, Forest Service
  • U.S. Department of Defense: U.S. Navy
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • U.S Department of Interior: Minerals Management Service, National Parks Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
  • U.S. Department of State
  • U.S. Department of Transportation

Other Key Organizations

  • Gulf of Mexico Foundation
  • Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies
  • The Northern Gulf Institute
  • The Dauphin Island Sea Lab
  • Area universities


Program Structure

The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a voluntary forum for exchanging information about the Gulf and the problems that impact its ecological health, discussing solutions to those problems, and planning coordinated actions.

The governors of the Gulf States are the source of its authority and legitimacy. It makes recommendations that shape the work programs of many research institutions, and informs resource management decisions by the Gulf States as well as federal agencies working in the Gulf region.

Initial Organizational Structure

The alliance began as an assemblage of cross-state, cross-organizational teams, including:

  • The Alliance Management Team: Comprised mainly by state agency directors designated by the governors, it provides high level guidance for the effort, and final approval of Alliance action plans.
  • Six Priority Issue Teams: The day-to-day workhorses of the initiative, these teams are each led by one state. They are comprised of program managers and scientists from Gulf State agencies and other interested parties.
  • Alliance Coordination Team: This team forms a bridge to communicate between the priority issue teams and the Management Team. It tees up issues and decisions for the AMT.

The Gulf of Mexico Regional Partnership Federal Workgroup works side by side with the alliance, stream-lining and coordinating the participation of 13 federal agencies in its work. It is chaired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Its members sit on alliance teams, but do not vote on decisions.  

New Organizational Structure

In 2011, the alliance formed a non-profit organization. The organization’s executive director and a small staff will assume responsibility for the administration of the initiative and provide support to its multi-state teams.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

In 2004, Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida, pitched the idea of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance to his fellow governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The best way to sustain a strong and economically healthy Gulf Coast was to tackle key environmental problems in a well-coordinated regional initiative, said Bush.

Still, Bush proposed a new initiative with an identity more closely tied to the governors, rather than create an effort to support or expand the existing federal program. Among his motivations were to pursue greater federal resources while maintaining state control over any effort. 

Bush believed the Gulf had gone unnoticed by Congress while other large marine ecosystems like Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound received large federal appropriations. A New national Ocean Plan that recommended greater regional ocean partnerships supported Bush’s proposal as did, undoubtedly, his personal relationship with his brother, then-President George Bush.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Gulf of Mexico Program, which was established in 1988, prepared the ground for the formation of the alliance. It aimed to engage all five Gulf States at the highest levels. It succeeded in getting state agencies to discuss ecosystem-scale issues for the first five. Participation in the program, however, had waned. Bush wanted to establish a regional initiative directed by the states, increasing the likelihood of full participation by senior political leaders in all five states.

Bush’s proposal met with quick support from his fellow governors. The increasing media and public attention to problems like the “dead zone” and the loss of wetlands that protect the Gulf coast from storms made action a political necessity. The governors believed a state-led alliance held promise for securing federal resources.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Gulf of Mexico is a large, shallow sea that extends from the Florida Keys to Corpus Christy, Texas. Its coastline runs along five American states, encompassing more than 47,000 miles.

It is the 9th largest water body in the world, and drains 60 percent of the surface waters in the United States. The Mississippi River watershed alone carries 420 billion gallons a day to the Gulf of Mexico, creating one of the most productive estuaries in the world. Tidal flats, wetlands and marshes, barrier islands, and hard and soft wood forests are among the most common habitats along the Gulf Coast.

Coastal habitats provide refuge and sustenance for nesting waterfowl, water birds, sea turtles, and many kinds of fish and shellfish. Species listed on the Endangered Species Act include sperm whales, certain species of sea turtles, Gulf Sturgeon and smalltooth sawfish.

The Gulf of Mexico’s biological productivity creates economic wealth for local economies and the nation. Its shrimp fishery accounts for 83 percent of all U.S. shrimp landings. It hosts ports and shipping lanes that move billions of dollars of oil, gas and other goods each year. Tourism generated by its beauty and recreational assets sustain 600,000 jobs.


Many of the stressors that threaten the Gulf’s health result directly or indirectly from population growth and coastal development. Other stressors derive from anthropogenic activities far upstream in the Mississippi and other watersheds. The threats to the Gulf include:

  • Degradation of Water Quality: Microbial pathogens from human and animal wastes contaminate near shore beaches and shellfish beds. Nutrient loading causes harmful algal blooms (such as red tides) that threaten fish and shellfish beds. Concentrations of mercury and other contaminants are of concern.
  • Hypoxia: The large volume of nutrients entering the Gulf from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya watersheds is the primary cause of a large hypoxic (or oxygen–depleted) zone that forms on the continental shelf off Louisiana every spring through fall. In 2002, the so-called “dead zone” grew to encompass 8,500 square miles.
  • Loss of Coastal Habitats: The loss of coastal wetlands from the combined effects of oil and gas drilling, coastal development and sea level rise has threatened food webs and made the coast far more vulnerable to storm surge. Many other habitats are also in decline.
  • Overfishing: The depletion of fish stocks in the Gulf has been a serious concern since the 1970s. Four commercially and recreationally valuable species are considered over-fished -- red snapper, greater amberkack, grouper and bluefin tuna. Catch limits have become more restrictive, but some scientists think the regulatory changes will not be sufficient to ensure the long term viability of overfished species.
  • Climate Change: While many of the potential impacts of climate change require greater study, rising sea levels will impact low-lying coastal regions and accelerate the loss of wetlands and other habitats. Increasing temperatures may also increase the flow of rivers, changing the salinity of productive near-shore areas.

Major Strategies

A Targeted Approach

The alliance’s six priority issues provide a framework for defining all of its goals and actions. Its founders believed the fastest way to establish a successful partnership was to clearly define its focus at the start, and leave controversial issues like fisheries management off the table. That way, the new partnership could demonstrate its value to the Gulf States quickly, and avoid getting bogged down in a lengthy process.

Specific Strategies Adopted by the Alliance

Many strategies are detailed in the alliance’s action plans. The five that have received the most attention and resources include:

Integrating Information to Assess Gulf Habitats

  • Inventory information on coastal habitats.
  • Improve access to the data by creating a web-based portal that many different state and local users can use.
  • Improve the ability to integrate and analyze the data with mapping and other web-based tools.

Improving Methods for Monitoring Water Quality and Assessing Risks

  • Standardize collection of water quality data.
  • Develop common methods for understanding pathogen contamination.
  • Improve regional tracking of harmful algal blooms with new technologies and coordination.
  • Develop a research framework for studying mercury contamination.

Developing Common Approaches to Setting Nutrient Criteria

  • Support the efforts of all five Gulf States to set criteria for regulating nutrients by providing a forum to jointly review the science and determine the best practices.  

Building a Shared Approach to Environmental Education

  • Develop a network of environmental educators to disseminate messages and materials.
  • Establish more “Coastal Learning Centers.”
  • Launch a public education campaign using social marketing.

Exploring a More Ecosystem Based Approach to Restoration

  • Establish a Gulf of Mexico Alliance Regional Restoration Coordination Team to address obstacles to restoration.
  • Develop a regional sediment plan to support healthy habitats.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Ecosystem Assessment: One Issue at a Time

The alliance has not attempted a single, holistic assessment of ecosystem conditions and trends. The Priority Issue Teams have individually sought to assess ecosystem health in relation to specific issues, such as habitat degradation or water quality. For example, the alliance developed a research framework to understand the impact of mercury as it moves through the ecosystem. Efforts are underway to standardize and harmonize collection methods of water quality and habitat data to improve the assessment of the ecosystem.

Future Plans for Monitoring and Evaluation

The alliance is relatively new. A comprehensive effort to define and evaluate metrics of ecosystem health has not been conducted yet. However, the Ecosystem Integration and Assessment Team proposed developing a metric-based “dashboard” to help policy makers track the health of the Gulf.  


Alliance leaders are proud of having achieved a strong foundation for long-term regional collaboration. Among their accomplishments are:

Full Participation by State Leaders

All five Governors are still committed. All five Gulf States dedicate high level agency staff to the effort, and many program managers and scientists. The mantle of leadership successfully passed from Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

New Information and Understanding

Agencies and organizations are working together to define the most important scientific questions about the ecosystem. They are coordinating scientific work programs to answer those questions comprehensively and efficiently.

To provide guidance and tools for state agencies, the alliance has produced:

  • A Regional Sediment Management Plan to help the Gulf States figure out how to use sediment resources to achieve ecosystem-scale goals for habitat protection and restoration.
  • An ecosystem data portal (PHINS, or Priority Habitat Information Network) to provide easier access to data on Gulf near-shore habitats dispersed across federal agencies.
  • A regional framework for setting nutrient criteria to aid the Gulf States in meeting federal directives to improve the regulation of nutrient inputs into Gulf waters.

A Platform for Winning Resources

The Gulf States are coordinating lobbying for federal appropriations for the first time. They are networking with other regional ocean partnerships to jointly approach Congress for funding. The alliance has positioned itself to distribute funding for ecosystem recovery efforts in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon rig oil spill in 2011.

Fostering Bi-National Cooperation

The alliance is coordinating with the six Mexican Gulf States to monitor and detect Harmful Algal Blooms, conduct environmental education, and take other actions to protect the Gulf.


Factors Facilitating Progress

The Gulf of Mexico Alliance was facilitated by the following factors:

State Government Factors

  • Taking a Targeted Approach: Many marine initiatives spend years studying their ecosystems before releasing priority-setting plans. In contrast, the alliance launched with five priority issues already defined, and produced an action plan to address them in just one year.
  • Building Political Will at the Start: Focusing on well-defined issues that all five states supported and setting aside controversial issues enabled the alliance to launch with high-level support from state leaders.
  • Setting Achievable Steps: The aggressive timeline compelled each team to recommend small, practical steps, such as producing interactive habitat maps. The achievability of the first plan enabled the alliance to build momentum with a series of small and swift successes, proving its value to the Gulf States and building deeper support to collaborate across state borders.
  • Building a State Ownership into the Structure: Each state leads a “Priority Issue Team” on one of the alliance’s six priority issues. The organizational structure has built a sense of ownership in the initiative among key state leaders.
  • Taking Advantage of Competition: A Gulf State governor or agency director does not want to be seen as lagging behind while other states in the same initiative are being praised for making progress.
  • Creating Rewards for States: As states use their teams to leverage expertise and resources far beyond what they have within their own governments, they see how regional collaboration produces progress on issues they care about. They also see how their team’s accomplishments bring regional and even national recognition to state leaders. These rewards of leadership deepen their commitment.
  • Cultivating Resolve to Act: In the first few years, the states kept their teams focused on exchanging scientific information and coordinating data collection. As their belief in the value of the alliance has grown, they have begun using their teams to put projects “on the ground.”  For example, Mississippi’s Nutrients Team is sponsoring pilot projects to test management strategies for reducing nutrient over-loading.
  • Building Trust and Cooperation: The alliance has steadily gained the trust of its participants. Now team meetings are brimming over with people who want to contribute to its work. Decisions about how to bring stakeholders together explain this growing trust and cooperation, and confirm how important process is to the success ecosystem-based management.
  • Convening Teams with the Right Expertise: Putting agency program managers at the same table with scientists, rather than putting them in separate technical and policy groups created a new level of cooperation in identifying scientific work that can directly guide resource management. Mixing federal and state scientists on the same teams has also been effective in breaking down mistrust and encouraging joint planning for new investigations.
  • Paying Attention to Personalities: The Gulf States chose participants who have good interpersonal skills. Southern culture also helps to create civility that teams need to be productive even when there are disagreements.
  • Providing Clear Direction: The Alliance Management and Coordination Teams were formed to provide direction to the six Priority Issue Teams and to formally vet and approve their recommendations. The structure has worked well to create clear expectations for teams, while avoiding over-prescribing their activity.
  • Using Good Facilitators: The team leads have played a crucial role in creating the conditions for effective team work, such as fostering mutual respect and good listening skills among team members. The Gulf States selected individuals for these roles who were known for their facilitation skills.

Federal Agency Factors

  • Strong Federal Involvement, Without Federal Dominance: From the outset, federal agencies decided to support this state-led initiative, and they carved out a new kind of role for themselves -- very different from their typical regulatory functions – to help it succeed.
  • Organized and Streamlined Federal Participation: They formed the Gulf of Mexico Regional Federal Workgroup to coordinate the involvement of more than thirteen agencies in the Alliance’s work.
  • Critical Start-up Funding: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supplied seed funding for convening and staffing many alliance teams, and for undertaking the first rounds of projects.
  • Supported Without Directing: Federal agencies are reliable behind-the-scenes partners. They aligned existing federal programs and resources to help the alliance implement its action plans. Even non-environmental agencies like NASA have helped, by doing projects such as collecting new remote sensing imagery of the Gulf floor. At the same time, they have deferred to the states on the overall direction of the alliance.


The Gulf of Mexico Alliance has encountered the following challenges:

  • Achieving Robust Participation by the States: Even though the five Gulf State governors reached a unanimous decision to form a multi-state alliance in 2005, it took time before their agencies were fully invested in its success. Cooperation had been limited among the five states’ agencies. There was a prevailing distrust between federal and state agencies in the region. Steady support of federal agencies enabled the alliance to overcome the obstacles. They provided seed funding, pulled together a Federal Workgroup to coordinate assistance across agencies, and provided a consistent presence in early team meetings. Now state officials participate fully.
  • Building Long-term Organizational Stability: As the alliance matured, its status as a collection of loose, voluntary teams with no formal institution made its future vulnerable. It had no access to funding sources for non-profits and it was vulnerable to future changes in state administrations. And it depended too much on significant contributions of leadership and time by agency managers who were stretched thin. The alliance is now transitioning from its loose network structure to a non-profit with an executive director and a budget of its own to increase its long-term sustainability. It is beginning to rotate leadership of the entire initiative across the five Gulf States.
  • Securing Stable Funding: To survive, the alliance needs stable, predictable funding. Early on, the alliance relied heavily on start-up funding that NOAA and EPA tapped from existing budgets. The longevity of this funding is in question. Likewise, staff time that so many state and federal agencies have contributed may not always be available. The alliance is organizing its sister ocean partnerships in other parts of the U.S. to jointly lobby Congress for resources.
  • Halting the Decline of Fisheries: The alliance did not select fisheries management as one of its six priority issues, although many key species are in steep decline. Its leaders reasoned that other organizations had responsibility for fisheries management. They also tried to steer clear of issues that could cause sharp conflicts among the states. But many in the region believe that federal and regional agencies responsible for regulating fisheries are not doing enough. The alliance may lose some of its support from stakeholders and funders if the health of key fisheries does not improve.
  • Earning the Confidence of Environmentalists and Regulators: The alliance struggles to influence the regulation of Gulf resources. It tried to help the states work together on setting nutrient criteria for Gulf waters. But a lawsuit filed against Florida by a national non-profit has compelled swifter action, constraining the alliance’s ability to develop common methodologies. Collaborative, science-intensive processes take time. Sometimes those outside the process – such as regulators or key stakeholders – are not willing to wait. In the future, the alliance may need to cultivate greater support for its approach by involving stakeholders who are outside the process.


Lessons Learned

People involved with the Gulf of Mexico Alliance have learned the following lessons:

  • Pursue High-Level Political Support: Governor Jeb Bush believed an initiative led by all five Gulf State governors would command attention across the region and in Congress, and lay a foundation for new sources of funding for the Gulf. The governors’ support sustained a robust regional collaboration with deep participation among federal and state agencies, and key non-profit organizations. It has also positioned the alliance to influence the distribution of billions of recovery dollars in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  • Stay Focused: The alliance avoided taking on too much at the start, sticking instead to a defined set of issues and recommending initial actions that were achievable with limited resources. A crisply defined agenda solidified political will among Gulf States. It also created a low bar for declaring victory early.
  • Design a Process that Breeds Teamwork: Process really matters. The alliance made smart decisions about process that turned its teams into bevies of cooperation and productivity. Among the decisions were to use the teams as forums for establishing communication between scientists and policy-makers; making individual states accountable for their progress; and choosing team leads with facilitation skills.
  • Produce Results Swiftly: The alliance successfully produced its first action plan just one year after its launch. It then worked on small steps for improving understanding f the Gulf ecosystem. Early momentum has been invaluable. When participants saw benefits unfold quickly, their commitment to the alliance deepened, even in a time of very scarce state resources.  
  • Work at Multiple Scales: Some of the Gulf’s environmental problems originate in areas far removed from the Gulf coast. Alliance leaders understand that they must eventually work upstream, engaging other inland states whose cities and farms send nutrients and other pollutants into the Gulf’s waters. They must also work with Mexican states that contribute to the Gulf’s woes.
  • Don’t Forget about Implementation. Early on, the alliance focused on building knowledge about the Gulf’s ecosystem processes and stressors. Now some of its teams are delving into on-the-ground projects, such as pilot-testing testing various nutrient reduction strategies. This evolution worked. Teams built trust slowly by sharing information, and are now pushing for actions that will produce measurable changes in ecosystem health and ensure long-term support and funding for the effort.
  • Keep Thinking About Sustainability of the Initiative: The alliance’s initial organizational structure – a loose set of voluntary teams with no formal institutional home – worked in the beginning. As the alliance matured, an organizational identity and a cadre of professional staff became essential to ensuring it could sustain the work and navigate political transitions. Now the alliance has learned that it must keep adapting to support its developmental stages and has formed a non-profit organization.
  • Expand “the Table” Over Time: The alliance’s work in a few areas has not been easy. A non-profit’s lawsuit against the state of Florida hindered the alliance’s efforts to inform nutrient criteria. Such challenges underscore the importance of involving stakeholders at the national scale, whether they are regulators or prominent national non-profits whose missions include protecting the Gulf.


Website Links

The Gulf of Mexico Alliance website:

Gulf of Mexico Program (at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency):