Since the quadruple whammies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, south Louisiana’s coastal communities have entered the spotlight as the long-neglected red-headed stepchildren of south Louisiana. With whispers of the relocations of coastal communities reaching our ears, it’s high time we join the chorus with a happier melody, highlighting projects by government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) focused on positive change for our much-valued coastline. From the return of the lowly marsh horse fly to the grandeur of restoring cypress-tupelo swamps, government and non-profit organizations in south Louisiana are working hard to help coastal Louisiana do an about-face.
Restoring Natural Water Flows in the Atchafalaya Basin
At a time when much of Louisiana’s coastline continues to vanish, the Wax Lake Delta at the foot of the Atchafalaya Basin continues to accrete land. However, upriver, the Basin suffers from long-lasting effects of human interference, like the manmade levees created to control flooding. Additionally, manmade locks, canals, and water control structures, designed to allow for the navigation of ships and other vessels involved in the extraction of timber and mineral resources, have also changed the way the river flows. These changes in hydrology have resulted in flooding that harms the swamp forests. Other areas surrounding the river suffer from too much or too little sediment delivered by the altered river flow. In areas of too much sediment, the lack of water flow negatively impacts aquatic species like catfish, crawfish, and turtles, upon which so many basin residents rely for their livelihoods. By working with government agencies, other NGOs, and community stakeholders, The Nature Conservancy is addressing these challenges. TNC purchased 5,359 acres in the Bayou Sorrel region of the Basin with the intent not only to conserve, but also to restore the swamp forest and the river’s natural flow, which will benefit both people and nature. By restoring the swamp forests, habitats for hundreds of species will be protected, including seventeen species of concern. These efforts will also preserve the livelihood and culture of the people who live and work in the region. By returning the water flow to a more natural state, the hurricane-resistant trees will thrive and continue to offer all swamp inhabitants a protective barrier from hurricane winds and storm surge. Joe Baustian, TNC’s wetland ecologist says, “Our work to restore natural water flows in the Atchafalaya Basin will improve habitat for fish and crawfish, improve water quality and forest health, and lead to a more sustainable and productive ecosystem in the years to come.” For all the creatures and folks that currently call the Atchafalaya Basin home, and for generations to come, this is very good news. nature.org.
Drafting Oysters to Secure Evacuation Routes
The Calcasieu Lake shoreline near the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge has suffered heavy erosion, and oyster resources in the area have been heavily depleted. To address both of these environmental concerns, The Nature Conservancy completed an oyster restoration/shoreline protection project in Calcasieu Lake (called “Big Lake” by locals) in the summer of 2017. Cages containing a mix of oyster shell and crushed concrete were installed immediately adjacent to the shoreline to protect it by dampening wave energy, accumulating sediment, and providing a substrate on which new oysters will grow, thrive, and serve as habitat for other estuarine species. The project will protect a mile of the coastal marshland between the lake and LA 27, which serves as the sole hurricane evacuation route in the area. Director of Coastal and Marine Conservation Seth Blitch stated, “The restoration and recovery of oysters as a habitat is an integral part of protecting our coasts and increasing the production of oysters as a fishery is an essential piece of the coastal economy and cultural history of Louisiana and the Gulf.” Protecting the shoreline, cultivating oyster growth, and ensuring a hurricane evacuation corridor is a restoration project of which The Nature Conservancy can be proud. nature.org.
Terrebonne Biodiversity and Resiliency Projects
The southeastern edge of Terrebonne Parish is one of the most rapidly disappearing wetlands in the world, and America’s WETLAND Foundation is reaching out to the private sector to complete two biodiversity and resiliency projects there. Combined, the projects will plant more than 35,000 bald cypress trees and 35,000 coastal marsh grass plugs, all locally grown. One of the first of its kind, the project represents a private sector investment of $3.4 million and after completion will restore 125 acres of wetlands. Once restored, the 125-acre swamp forest will represent a per-year economic value of $1.2 million, based on recreational uses and improved ecosystems. Other annual benefits of a restored cypress forest include the elimination of up to 266 pounds of phosphorus and 10,600 pounds of nitrogen, which improves water quality for fish and wildlife and reduces the flow of harmful upland nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico. The reforestation of this area will provide community benefits in the form of floodwater retention as well as storm surge and hurricane wind reduction. These and future private-sector projects will work hand-in-hand with the State Master Plan for Coastal Restoration, not against it. Additionally, these two projects will be the first two listed in the America’s WETLAND Conservation & Restoration Registry. The Registry will be online this fall as an inventory and reporting of private projects, consistent with Louisiana’s coastal master plan, that have been completed or planned and available for private sponsorship and funding. Valsin Marmilion, Managing Director of the Foundation, said, “We are confident that private-sector coastal restoration is a growing part of the overall solution to wetland loss. In this case, two much-needed ecosystem projects are proceeding to restore wetlands to support biodiversity and conservation, using private funds. We hope to continue to add projects with our partners in the future and encourage more private projects.” americaswetland.com.
Louisiana Direct Seafood is Your Seafood Matchmaker
Ever find yourself at your local supermarket wondering how fresh that seafood is behind the glass case and where it came from? Well, Louisiana Seafood Direct makes finding and buying the freshest Louisiana seafood easy by connecting the consumer with fishermen and local dealers to directly purchase fresh, delicious shrimp, crabs, fish and other seafood … one step away from the boat. Cameron Direct, Delcambre Direct, LaTer Direct, and Southshore Direct list available seafood at the louisianadirectseafood.com online portal that helps consumers find the latest catch from local waters in two ways. Users can check the “Fresh Catch” message for each region, where fishermen and retailers post what they’re selling and how to purchase. Users may also search the full list of sellers by region or species to make a connection. Thomas Hymel of Louisiana Sea Grant calls Louisiana Seafood Direct “your ‘seafood matchmaker’, taking the guesswork out of finding and purchasing fresh Louisiana seafood.” With this online tool, consumers are guaranteed a locally-sourced, wild, freshly-caught product. Whether it’s catfish, crabs, or shrimp, Louisiana Seafood Direct is good for the body and the local economy. louisianadirectseafood.com.
Marsh Maneuvers Get the Kids Involved
Every summer, Louisiana Sea Grant and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries hold four, four-day summer camps called Marsh Maneuvers for 4-H students from four different parishes. Seeing a need to educate Louisiana youth beyond the confines of the classroom, the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program started these camps in 1993. In these camps, high school students learn the value of healthy estuaries to Louisiana’s coastal environment, as well as the economic value of the fishery. In field trips, students see examples of hydrologic changes to the wetlands created by man-made channels. Through hands-on activities like crabbing, fishing, water testing, and planting marsh grasses on restoration sites, students gain a holistic view of what is at stake if our estuaries are not preserved. This new-found knowledge is then taken back to their schools in the form of term papers, speeches, and 4-H presentations. Since its inception, Marsh Maneuvers has instructed over six hundred students from all sixty-four parishes in how to become better stewards of our fragile coastal ecosystem. These camps provide great opportunities for students with a bent toward biological and earth sciences, while educating the future caretakers of our coast. Marsh Maneuvers Director Mark Shirley says, “Ten to fifteen years after taking part in a camp, some students have become science teachers or wetland scientists working for agencies like NOAA and LDWF.” Free of charge to 4-H students, these four-day camps are well worth the investment. laseagrant.org. wlf.louisiana.gov.
The Return of the Greenhead Horse Fly to Coastal Marshes
When fishing the coastal marshes of Louisiana, the biting greenhead horse fly can ruin the best of fishing trips. Some folks believe the reduction in population of these biting flies after the 2010 BP oil spill is a good thing, but these flies are bioindicators of salt marsh recovery. Hang on to your bug repellant, because LSU Ag Center project leaders Claudia Husseneder and Lane Foil report that five years after the oil spill, the horse fly populations showed recovery of both adults and larvae. Husseneder tell us that “the blood-sucking nemesis is a sign of a healthy, productive marsh, so their return is good news for the ecosystem.”
As bioindicators of healthy marsh, the absence of greenhead horse flies points to a compromised food web and/or environmental toxicity. After the spill, populations of horse flies declined in oiled areas, because adults were attracted to oil sheens, which look to them like fresh water. Fewer breeding adults and oil contamination of the soil knocked down larval development and adult population numbers for years. The larvae develop for three to nine months as top predators in the marsh soil, and their return is a positive sign of a healthy food web. According to the study conducted by Husseneder and Foil, the main reason for the recovery was migration of adult flies from healthy areas into formerly oiled areas after the natural degradation of oil in the soil allowed a sufficiently diverse food web to build up and sustain larval development. So, on your next coastal fishing trip, thank a greenhead horsefly for reminding you that the coastal marshes are on the mend post-BP oil spill. lsuagcenter.com.
The Return of the Whooping Crane
Located in the “wet prairies” of southwest Louisiana, White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area is the historic home of the whooping crane. Federally listed in 1967 as an endangered species, these wading birds previously resided in southwest Louisiana as both fulltime residents and migratory species. However, unregulated hunting, specimen collection, human disturbance, and conversion of the prairies and wetlands to mechanized agriculture led to the decline of this species both nationally and at the state level. By 1945, only two cranes remained in Louisiana. In March of 1950, the lone Louisiana crane, referred to as “Mac,” was captured at White Lake and transported to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the central Texas coast. Whooping cranes were absent from the Louisiana prairies for sixty years until 2011, when the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reintroduced ten juvenile cranes to the conservation area. The work hardly stopped there. Large and white, the cranes prove easy targets for poachers and are not quick to raise their own numbers. “They don’t give themselves a lot of chances,” LDWF biologist Sara Zimorski, who works closely with the crane project, told Country Roads in 2016. “They don’t start breeding until they’re three to five years of age. They lay two eggs maximum. And if they’re good, maybe they raise one chick successfully a year.”
But Zimorski has encouraging news in 2018: “LDWF has a great track record for restoring species that are in peril, like the Louisiana black bear. Since 2011, our crane population has grown to sixty-two birds. The habitat offered in southwest Louisiana gives the whooping crane an excellent chance to flourish and the whooping crane will hopefully, one day, be a common sight in this region.” Now that is something to “whoop” about! wlf.louisiana.gov.
The Louisiana coast and its communities still face major challenges in repairing and restoring this fragile, unique terrain, but with attention focused on some of these pressing issues, there’s now a glimmer of hope. Here’s to the success of these projects—and may we have twice as many to report next year.
Hope you enjoyed this feature which first appeared in Country Roads Magazine this summer! Yes, I’ve been a very busy BW.