Louisiana's coastal marshes are disappearing at an astonishing rate.
The charter captain throttled down, easing his boat next to a section of bright-yellow boom placed in the river channel to help contain the ongoing disaster still unfolding on Louisiana's Gulf Coast. The tubing was squeaky-clean, but still, it served as the first piece of visual evidence on our quest.
Camera shutters clicked as tour guide Bob Marshall shared from a well of knowledge gathered during 40 years of fishing and hunting in the sprawling marshes southwest of New Orleans.
"See that?" Marshall asked, pointing to a free-floating, basketball-sized chunk of soil covered in lush, long-stemmed grass. "That's the Louisiana Gulf Coast bleeding to death."
Every member of our media contingent was lured to Louisiana in search of oiled beaches and birds, but the National Wildlife Federation had assembled the expedition for us to witness why the region faces a much more ominous threat than a couple hundred million gallons of wayward crude gushing from the Gulf's floor.
Wealth of Riches
The 3.4 million acres of marsh, swamps and islands of coastal Louisiana comprise the largest wetland complex in the continental United States. Fifty bird species, including mottled ducks, nest there. Another 60 winged species stop over, many of them settling in for more than a month. An estimated 9.2 million ducks funnel down the Mississippi and Central flyways to winter on Louisiana's coast. Pintails, gadwalls, wigeon and teal thrive on rich aquatic vegetation, while redheads and bluebills -- up to a third of the North American population -- dive for clams and invertebrates in more open areas.
Beyond its importance to wintering birds, the massive estuary is an incredibly productive source of seafood. Half of the nation's wild shrimp -- 89 million pounds in 2008 -- came from coastal Louisiana, which also produces 35 percent of the blue crabs and 40 percent of the oysters consumed in the United States.
For the seafaring men who trawl with nets and tend buoyed pots, shellfishing is more than an occupation, it's a lifestyle. But the fishermen ply these waters alongside massive ships carrying nearly every commodity imaginable to ports on the Mississippi River. South Louisiana handles 56 percent of the nation's grain shipments, and 40 percent of the country's coal exports.
Too, the shrimpers and oystermen must share the marshes with staggering numbers of gas and oil production workers. About 4,000 platforms punctuate the Gulf of Mexico skyline off of the Louisiana coast, the largest concentration of oil and gas wells on Earth. Not surprisingly, the area is the top energy producer in the United States.
Degrading the Delta
Long before the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded and oil began spewing uncontrollably in April, the coastal estuary was under siege. In fact, the first blow was dealt in 1933 with the completion of the Great Mississippi River Levee System.
"The Great Flood of 1927 convinced the nation that it couldn't be allowed to happen again," Marshall explained. "That was great, but it also meant it was a death sentence to the Delta, because the primary way for a delta to maintain itself is from the flooding and the sediments from the river. When the river comes over the banks, the sediment comes in, it settles and builds up and keeps the system going. Those levees were a death sentence to South Louisiana and the Mississippi River estuaries."
As shipping cargo up and down the Mississippi River increased in importance, additional measures were taken to ensure unimpeded boat traffic.
"We wanted to make sure the river was safe for shipping, so we made sure none of that sediment clogged up the river channel," Marshall said. "The Corps of Engineers' primary function was shipping, so we couldn't let the river slow down. They continued to pinch it with different structures, and all of that sediment -- that lifeblood of the Delta -- goes right off the shelf out to the Gulf Stream. Instead of building the Delta, it's building a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico."
In the 1930s, oil and gas was discovered in the coastal zone, forever changing South Louisiana.
"We proceeded to go after this oil and gas by carving canals, because that was the easiest and cheapest way to get to where the oil and gas rigs had to go," Marshall said. "Eventually, we carved 25 miles of canals for oil and gas shipping and development. Then we discovered oil and gas offshore, and we proceeded to build 4,000 rigs offshore.
"The riches from the Gulf floor had to be transported to shore by pipelines, so we dredged more canals. There was no backfilling. People said, 'There's more marsh here than you can shake a stick at. It's going to cost us too much money to backfill.' All those manmade waterways were highways for salt water from the Gulf into the northern end of these freshwater estuaries, killing all of those cypress trees in the freshwater marshes."
So, while the ever-increasing activities of gas and oil production sliced apart the thick mat of vegetation, levees kept silt and nutrients out of the marshes. The result has been -- and continues to be -- devastating. The marsh is sinking, the water getting deeper. Islands are disappearing, stands of once-thriving vegetation washed away. Forever.
More than 2,300 square miles of Louisiana coastal marsh has disappeared since the 1930s. And the pace is accelerating. About 25 square miles, or 20,000 acres, are lost each year, equivalent to an area the size of a football field vanishing every 30 minutes.
"It took nature 6,000 years to build this Delta off the coast of Louisiana, and it took man about 70 years to erase most of it," Marshall said.
Duck Hunting Mecca
Last season, hunters in Louisiana killed 1.8 million ducks, and 1 million of those were shot in coastal parishes. Surveys reveal that about 500,000 waterfowl hunter days occur on Louisiana's coast, clearly making it one of the most important regions in North America f
"What happens if you lose the Gulf Coast marshes and the traditions that go with it?" reasoned Dale Humburg, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited. "About a half-million waterfowl hunter days are affected by this oil spill, and in the longer term, by marsh erosion. We talk about tradition. This isn't about ducks in the freezer, it's about a way of life."
No matter where you hunt ducks, even if you never venture to Louisiana, the status of the Gulf's wintering grounds will impact your season.
"This isn't a matter of just a few ducks raised in North Dakota coming to the Gulf Coast," Humburg said. "Birds from Alaska all the way to the eastern seaboard rely on that Gulf Coast habitat. It's absolutely continentally important. It's not limited to the Mississippi Flyway, not limited to the Central Flyway, it's continental in its importance. We need to have birds survive at a high rate and return north in good condition if we expect to have birds next year."
Voices for Change
Captain Mike Frenette of Redfish Lodge in Venice, La., has hunted ducks and caught redfish and speckled trout in the coastal marsh for decades. He has watched wetlands that used to buzz with teal and pintails literally disappear, and shallows that teemed with fish turn into barren waters.
"We need to educate and re-educate people about what was here, what should be here and what needs to be here," he said. "We have a serious problem with our estuary and our wetlands. If we don't save the wetlands, no matter what damage the oil does, we will have nothing. We won't have any fish. We won't have any ducks. We won't have a way of life, and we won't have the recreational activities that everyone in this country should be afforded.
"We're smart enough with technology now to realize the problems that exist. Maybe 40 years ago, we weren't. Now that we are, we need to correct the problems that exist. It's still the best place in the United States. We have to save it."
Ryan Lambert, director of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, testified before a Congressional subcommittee about the plight of the Gulf Coast wetlands.
"For far too long, Louisiana's restoration projects have been held back due to red tape and political bureaucracies," he told Congress on June 10 in Washington, D.C. "It is time for someone to step up to the plate and reconnect the Mississippi River to the marshes it sustains. This disconnect is at the root of our problem. A spotted owl can stop the logging industry. An endangered mouse can halt a housing development. But we lose the size of a football field every 30 minutes as we sit back and let the greatest estuary in North America go by the wayside."
Promise of Oil Money
Lambert, who hosted the NWF media event at his Cajun Fishing Adventures lodge in Buras, La., is optimistic coastal wetland losses can be halted.
Ironically, the BP oil disaster that gripped the nation's attention for three months might be the event that turns the tide.
"We have an opportunity here like we might never have again because of the oil spill," Lambert said. "There's going to be a penalty phase, just like there was in the Exxon Valdez. That was a billion dollars. In my opinion, we'll get between 3 and 5 billion dollars before this is over. We can put that toward the master plan in Louisiana to rebuild our wetlands. Everybody is going to have to come together and stand together to take that money and rebuild this coastline."
The state's master plan includes controlled water infusions from the river to nourish sections of the delta. Although Lambert and other captains are pleased about the potential gains from river diversions, they are hoping for so much more.
"We need to open the river up," he said. "Not just Band-Aids like little diversions. We need to open it up to where Mother Nature can come up and put that sediment through here again."
Lambert wants the state to buy dredges to rebuild barrier islands on the outer edge of the marsh. A strong outer wetlands rim would reduce storm surges and allow interior marshes to fill in and grow vegetation. Realistically, the process will take decades. But doing nothing means massive habitat losses will continue until the Louisiana coast is nothing but barren, open water.
"It's not too late," Lambert said. "Just because we won't see it, doesn't mean it can't be done. I'll be dead and gone, but if we don't start it now, and start it big and let Mother Nature come back in these estuaries, it'll never happen."
Paul Wait is editor of Wildfowl.