Archive for Birds


A Bird's Eye View of Coastal Erosion

November 24, 2014 | Posted by lbourg in Birds, Louisiana Coastal Area (LCA), Wildlife

This was originally posted on the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Promise blog.

By Kelly Wagner, National Wildlife Federation

Each day I pass an egret on the way to work that lingers in the watery ditches in my town. It amuses me that this elegant bird seems to give little concern to the cars that are passing within ten feet of it. It doesn’t know that I am heading to NWF’s New Orleans field office that has one focus—to restore its wetlands habitat in the Mississippi River Delta before the wetlands disappear. Recently, I got to see the devastating wetland loss from the egret’s perspective.

The Mississippi River Delta, where the mighty Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, supports more than 400 species of birds. For millions of birds, the delta’s food-rich habitats are critical stopping places before their grueling nonstop flight across the Gulf. But human activities have disrupted the natural balance of the wetlands in the delta and they are receding at alarming rates—nearly a football field of wetlands disappears every hour.

Last week, we took local officials up in a flight provided by SouthWings.org to get an aerial view of how quickly the Gulf is encroaching inland. It was an eye-opening experience that only pictures can convey:

kw pic 1

As far as I could see looking south and westward, the wetlands were breaking up into patchy areas. The pattern of deterioration reminded me of the gauzy Halloween material with all the holes that people were using to decorate their homes.

kw pic 2

In some places, all you could see were the raised spoil banks from past canals that are no longer necessary as the wetlands turn to open water.

kw pic 3

We also passed over restoration areas that were underway, but from the air it was easy to see that the disappearing wetlands exceed the healthy or restored areas. We need to do more restoration on a larger scale to catch up with the amount of wetlands we are losing. Wildlife are depending upon us to restore this once-beautiful delta.

 

 

 

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Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative examines oil spill’s effects on environmental and public health

February 26, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Meetings/Events, Science

By Estelle Robichaux, Environmental Defense Fund

GRI_WebsiteBanner_r1_c1The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) hosted its 2014 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill and Ecosystem Science Conference January 26-29 in Mobile, Ala. GoMRI was created soon after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster when BP committed $500 million over 10 years to fund a broad, independent research program with the purpose of studying the environmental and public health impacts of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The conference drew several hundred attendees from academia, state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations who gathered to hear presentations on cutting-edge research about the impacts of the Gulf oil disaster and continuing socio-ecological recovery. This conference, the second of its kind, facilitates interdisciplinary discussion by giving GoMRI-funded researchers from many different fields an opportunity to come together.

The four-day event entailed around 150 oral presentations in 10 different sessions, more than 400 poster presentations and nearly a dozen other associated meetings, events and plenary sessions. Some of the conference sessions were very technical, including transportation of oil spill residues (i.e., tar balls and tar mats) and dispersants, and impacts of the oil spill on fisheries, coastal marshes and nearshore water ecosystems. Other sessions were technological, focusing on ecosystem monitoring and data management, while others examined the human side, looking at public health and socio-economic issues.

Some of the research coming out of the Coastal Waters Consortium is particularly interesting because it goes beyond the physical and chemical impacts of the spill, focusing on broader ecological issues such as coastal processes and food webs. Dr. Sabrina Taylor is the principle investigator looking at the post-spill reproductive success, survival and dispersal of the Seaside sparrow, a bird that lives its entire life on salt marsh and is very sensitive to environmental changing, making it an excellent “indicator species.”

CWC_SabrinaTaylor_SeasideSparrowRelease

Dr. Sabrina Taylor releases a Seaside Sparrow in its Louisiana marsh home after collecting information about its condition. (Photo credit: Phil Stouffer)

Dr. Christy Bergeron Burns presented preliminary results showing less species abundance and less reproductive productivity for the Seaside sparrow in oiled versus unoiled areas of Barataria Bay, La. While the trend in abundance was less pronounced in 2013 than it was in 2012, the trends in reproductive indicators (number of nests, failed nests and fledglings) remained consistent. With more data to collect in 2014, this study has not yet reached any final conclusions. But these preliminary results are prompting questions that are shaping the ongoing research to determine the factors that are causing these trends: Has exposure to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs – compounds found in crude oil – directly impacted the bird’s reproductive success and habitat selection? Is PAH exposure, or environmental stress in general, affecting hormone levels in this species? Or has the primary food source of the birds – insects – been impacted by the spill somehow, indirectly affecting reproductive success and habitat selection of the Seaside sparrow?

After scientifically assessing the correlation of ecological changes to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, researchers will dig deeper to understand what has actually caused these changes. Continued collection and analysis of data will give the scientific community a clearer, evidence-based picture of how the oil spill affected specific components of the Gulf ecosystem. But the Gulf Coast region will not get the most benefit from this extensive research until scientists have started to develop a more comprehensive, ecosystem-wide understanding of how the oil spill has impacted the Gulf of Mexico.

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Rebuilding coastal Louisiana, using the natural power of the mighty Mississippi

February 12, 2014 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in 2011 Mississippi River Flood, 2012 Coastal Master Plan, Birds, Diversions, Mardi Gras Pass, Restoration Projects, Science

This was originally posted by Environmental Defense Fund on EDF Voices.

By Estelle Robichaux, Restoration Project Analyst, Environmental Defense Fund

Soon after my flyover of the Mississippi River Delta, I joined Dr. John Lopez of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) on a boat ride down the Bohemia Spillway to Mardi Gras Pass. As we sped down the spillway canal, beautiful swamp lilies and purple morning glories popped out against a backdrop of lush, green plants. Once we reached our destination, we saw an incredible number of birds: Laughing Gulls, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue and Tricolored Herons – just to name a few. This, along with an increase in the number of river otters and beavers observed, is a good indicator that there are healthy fish populations in the area.

mardigraspass

Thirty-five miles southeast of New Orleans, Mardi Gras Pass is the Mississippi River’s newest and naturally evolving “distributary,” a channel of water that flows away from the main branch of the river. This new distributary began forming during the spring flood of 2011, when the water level of the Mississippi River was so high that it flowed over the natural levee in this area. When the floodwaters receded, Dr. Lopez and his team of scientists noticed two breaches in the embankment. These breaches continued to widen and deepen and soon, right around Mardi Gras Day 2012, the breach was complete. The Mississippi River was once again connected to the surrounding wetlands, allowing freshwater and land-building sediment back into the area.

Losing Louisiana

Louisiana has lost 25% of its coastal land area since 1930 and continues to lose land at an alarming rate – one football field every hour, on average. Man-made levees along the Mississippi River cut off many small distributaries, like Mardi Gras Pass, from the wetlands in the floodplain of the river and have contributed to this massive wetland loss. Our team here at EDF works with partner organizations, including the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, as part of the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Coalition, which has a vision of reconnecting the Mississippi River to its delta to help protect people, wildlife and jobs in coastal Louisiana.

To address the complex, yet urgent need for coastal restoration in Louisiana, the state legislature unanimously passed the 2012 Coastal Master Plan. This plan is a long-term, science-based restoration program that includes nearly 250 restoration projects such as barrier island restoration, marsh creation, establishment of oyster barrier reefs and sediment diversions that will help rebuild Louisiana’s disappearing coast.

Restoring our coast, restoring my hope

One of the principal guidelines for restoration under the Coastal Master Plan is to address the root causes of land loss by using the natural power of the Mississippi River to build land at a large scale. Sediment diversions, a central component of the plan, embody this principle because they are designed to mimic the natural stages of the river and carry sediment to the areas of coastal Louisiana that need it most. By operating diversions at times of high water flow (like during a flood), large amounts of sediment can be diverted. It will then settle out in the wetlands and shallow bays, eventually building land mass in vulnerable coastal areas.

In a way, Mardi Gras Pass is a naturally occurring ‘pilot project’ of a sediment diversion. Knowledge gained from studying this area can tell us about the land-building properties, as well as the short-term effects, of sediment diversions. To learn more about this, LPBF scientists are studying how the reintroduction of freshwater and sediment to the spillway area is changing the wetlands and affecting wildlife populations.

Swift currents and downed trees along the edge of the flooded forest can make navigating Mardi Gras Pass somewhat treacherous, but we, in a trusty 14’ skiff, maneuvered through the channel and onto the Mississippi River for a brief but thrilling cruise.

This is what it means for the river to be connected to its floodplain, I thought as we emerged out onto the open water, this is what this ecosystem is supposed to be like.

Although I grew up only a few miles from it, this was the third time in my life I had been out on the Mississippi River and the first time it was in a boat small enough that I could reach down and touch its muddy waters. As our tiny boat circled out in that mighty river, despite the heat and the midday sun, I had goose bumps.

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Louisiana bird watchers flock to Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count

December 20, 2013 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Birds, Meetings/Events

By Erik I. Johnson, PhD., Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Louisiana

Between December 14 and January 5, bird watchers from around the country will spend a perfectly good day counting birds for the 114th Christmas Bird Count (CBC), organized by the National Audubon Society. The longest-running citizen science program in the world, this annual event is an irreplaceable tool for researchers and the conservation community to learn about how our birds are doing – are their populations increasing or decreasing, and where is this happening?

Royal Tern. Credit: Erik Johnson.

Royal Tern. Credit: Erik Johnson.

More than 2,000 count circles are run around the country each year. Each CBC circle is 15 miles in diameter, and participants cover as much of this area as possible to find and tally all the birds they see and hear. To discover a CBC near you, see this map.

Some south Louisiana Christmas Bird Count circles have among the highest species counts of anywhere in the country. A mix of east and west, temperate and tropical, a stunning variety of birds can be found on Louisiana’s Christmas Bird Counts, such as Sandhill Cranes, Roseate Spoonbills, Vermilion Flycatchers, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds and Short-eared Owls, just to name a few.

Roseate Spoonbill. High Island, TX (April 5, 2009). Credit: Erik Johnson

Roseate Spoonbill. Credit: Erik Johnson

The number and diversity of birds are found here because much of Louisiana’s coastal habitats are globally Important Bird Areas, strategically positioned at the base of the Mississippi Flyway. Supporting a variety of birds including many species of national conservation concern like Seaside Sparrows, Piping Plovers and Reddish Egrets, Louisiana’s coast is a critical wintering location for birds from across North America. As we face crucial decisions regarding restoration of Louisiana’s coastline to sustain our cultural and historical legacy, we also need to ensure that this monumental effort benefits birds and other wildlife. Data from the Christmas Bird Count have shown that shorebirds and marshbirds are among the fastest declining groups of birds along the Gulf Coast – no doubt as a consequence of habitat loss due to natural and man-made factors. Terns, sandpipers, plovers and rails are not doing as well as they used to because barrier islands are disappearing into the ocean and marshes are being converted to open water.

Piping Plover. Credit: Erik Johnson.

Piping Plover. Credit: Erik Johnson.

Nowhere else does the state bird, the pelican, mean so much to a state’s legacy and culture. Having come back from extinction in Louisiana to having multiple successful island-nesting colonies supporting tens of thousands of pelicans, a concerted effort to continue this success story is imperative. Other birds that also stand to benefit from coastal restoration include threatened Piping Plovers that forage on invertebrates along sandy and muddy shorelines, Reddish Egrets that dance in shallow estuaries to catch minnows and crustaceans, Royal Terns that plunge into bays after small fish and Marsh Wrens that secretively glean insects and spiders from the stems of marsh grasses.

Reddish Egret. Credit: Erik Johnson.

Reddish Egret. Credit: Erik Johnson.

We invite you to come enjoy some of the finest bird watching in the country and join a CBC, regardless of your experience level. If interested, please contact myself, Erik Johnson, regional coordinator and Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Louisiana, or find out more at the CBC website.

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BP Oil Spill: 1,000 Days Later

January 14, 2013 | Posted by Chandler Clay in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Clean Water Act, Congress, Economics, Federal Policy, Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, Hurricane Isaac, Latest News, Restoration Projects, Seafood

It's been exactly 1,000 days since the BP-operated oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, gushing millions of barrels of crude oil into a body of water that supports countless ecosystems and economies.

Below is a timeline of major events that have occurred in the last 1,000 days.

Tell BP to stop stalling, take responsibility, and pay the maximum Clean Water Act fines for which they are liable — now!

Sources:

– Restorethegulf.org, "First oiled bird is recovered."
– Restorethegulf.org, "NOAA Expands Fishing Closed Area in Gulf of Mexico."
The New York Times, "Effects of Spill Spread as Tar Balls Are Found."
TIME, "100 Days of the BP Spill: A Timeline."
– The White House, "Executive Order 13554–Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force."
Bloomberg, "BP Oil Still Ashore One Year After End of Gulf Spill."
– PNAS, "Impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep-water coral community in the Gulf of Mexico."
– University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, "Study confirms oil from Deepwater Horizon disaster entered food chain in the Gulf of Mexico."
The Times-Picayune, "About 565,000 pounds of oiled material from Deepwater Horizon stirred up by Hurricane Isaac."
The New York Times, "BP Will Plead Guilty and Pay Over $4 Billion."
– Georgia Tech Biology, "Gulf of Mexico Clean-Up Makes 2010 Spill 52-Times More Toxic."
– University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, "UMiami scientists partner with NOAA, Stanford and U of N Texas to study post spill fish toxicology."
– NOAA Fisheries Service, "2010-2013 Cetacean Unusual Mortality Event in Northern Gulf of Mexico."
The Times-Picayune, "Transocean to pay $1.4 billion to settle pollution, safety violations in Gulf oil spill."

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Audubon Christmas Bird Count Begins, Delta Region Highlights Local Opportunities

December 19, 2012 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Birds, Meetings/Events

Conservationists in the Mississippi River Delta region have announced local details about this year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count: the longest-running citizen science wildlife survey in the world. There are numerous opportunities for Louisianans to participate in this celebrated international tradition. Running December 14 – January 5, the count spans the Arctic to the Andes and is now in its 113th year.

“Christmas Bird Count participants experience seasonal gifts of unforgettable sightings,” said Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation at Audubon Louisiana. “Nearly half of North America’s bird species, and about 40% of its waterfowl, spend at least part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway,” Johnson added. “With many species residing or migrating through our region, abundant observation opportunities can be enjoyed in the field and in our own backyards.”

Photo Credit: Red-breasted Nuthatch, by Erik I. Johnson

This year, scientists and citizen participants can look for some unusual occurrences among interesting species. Grosbeaks, finches and nuthatches are irrupting as lack of food in Canadian forests sends these seed-eaters to New England and across the Great Lakes to Minnesota (map) and in some cases, all the way to the Gulf Coast. Audubon experts are seeing species well outside their normal range and in unusual numbers: Red-breasted Nuthatches have been reported in coastal Mississippi by the Pascagoula Audubon Center; Evening Grosbeaks are drifting farther south and could move as far south as the Carolinas and Georgia.

The data that citizen scientists provide to the science and conservation communities while conducting Christmas Bird Counts are irreplaceable for understanding bird species distributions and population trends at continental scales. In the Mississippi River Delta region, data from the Christmas Bird Count have enabled scientists to understand bird population trends along the Gulf Coast and to track birds’ responses to climate change. In a region where land loss, severe storms and changing water levels impact communities, businesses, and birds alike, scientific understanding of changing trends and ecosystems is invaluable.

This year, there are new reasons for Christmas Bird Count participants to get excited: fees to participate will be dropped to encourage greater participation. The annual published report, American Birds, will go digital in 2013, saving paper and broadening access. Christmas Bird Count information will be available online in Spanish for the first time.

Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold celebrated the annual tradition in a press statement: “The Audubon Christmas Bird Count harnesses volunteer power to gather knowledge that shapes conservation policy at enormous scales in this country. I couldn’t be prouder of the 60,000-plus volunteers who contribute each year: This is the largest, longest-running animal census on the planet, and we’re all proud to be a part of the CBC. And with the elimination of fees, we're looking forward to even more people having a role in this adventure.”

To find a count near you, visit: http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count-find-count-near-you

To learn more from Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation at Audubon Louisiana, visit his blog.

Louisiana Christmas Bird Count Dates:

December 14: Lacassine NWR-Thornwell
December 15: Shreveport; Sabine NWR; D’Arbonne
December 16: Sweet Lake-Cameron Prairie NWR
December 20: Claiborne; Grand Isle
December 21: Pine Prairie; New Iberia
December 22: Natchitoches; New Orleans; Natchez
December 26: Lafayette
December 27: White Lake
December 28: St. Tammany Parish; Catahoula NWR
December 29: Cheneyville-LeCompte; Venice; Johnson’s Bayou
December 30: Northshore-Slidell; Reserve-Bonnet Carre Spillway
January 2: Creole
January 3: Crowley
January 5: Baton Rouge
January 5: Bossier-Caddo-Bienville

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Mississippi Flyway Fall Migration Tour touches down in St. Louis

October 24, 2012 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Birds

During the months of October and November, staff from the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign will be making stops along the Mississippi River, talking with people about the importance of the Mississippi River Delta to birds migrating along the flyway this fall. In today’s post, National Audubon Society’s Sean Saville tells readers about attending the Breakfast with the Birds event in St. Louis, why the delta is important to birders there, and his vision for restoration.

By Sean Saville, National Field Director, National Audubon Society

Standing near St. Louis at the confluence of the two largest rivers in America, the Mississippi and the Missouri, I'm reminded just how important and special this particular place is. Not only is it a major hub of shipping and river industry for the whole river system, but it is an incredibly rich and diverse ecosystem comprised of marsh, bottomland forest, wetland and prairie that is home to a stunning array of wildlife, especially birds.

Breakfast with the Birds event flyer. Click to see full size.

We had the pleasure of witnessing the spectacle of fall migration at this special place, and the group that had gathered with us Saturday morning at the Audubon Center at Riverlands was all too aware of the significance of what they were viewing. We saw a pair of Northern Harrier, many Blue-winged teal, Shovelers, American white pelican, a Franklin's gull and a few Red-winged blackbirds, to name a few. The birds knew this is a special place, too, and had stopped in to take advantage of the food and resources here on their way south along the Mississippi Flyway to their wintering grounds.

The folks that had gotten up early to be here had also come to hear about what they could do to help advocate for restoration of the Mississippi River Delta, because people who live this close to the river know that the whole system is connected. As someone in the group said: “We all live downstream, and what we do here affects everyone else further down the river.” This mentality and appreciation of the interconnectedness of communities up and down the river is refreshing, and a great example for the rest of the country.

I bid farewell to this special place and to my gracious hosts with a sense that if we could just get everyone to come and see a place like this and feel a part of something greater, then our work to protect the vitality of the Mississippi River Delta and flyway would be a lot simpler.

To learn more about future Fall Migration Tour events, please visit: http://www.mississippiriverdelta.org/take-action/fall-2012-migration-tour/

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Fairhope, Alabama: First stop on Mississippi River Fall Flyway Migration Tour

October 12, 2012 | Posted by Kevin Chandler in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Meetings/Events

By Kevin Chandler, Communications Coordinator, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign 

Last week, the Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign’s Fall Flyway Migration Tour touched down in coastal Alabama for the 9th Annual John L. Borom Coastal BirdFest. On October 4 and 5, we tabled at the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, the second largest delta in the United States. The 5 Rivers Center sits at the point where the Mobile, Spanish, Tensaw, Apalachee and Blakeley rivers meet to flow into Mobile Bay. On Saturday, October 6, we shared a tent with the Pascagoula River Audubon Center at the BirdFest expo on the campus of Faulkner State Community College in beautiful Fairhope, Ala., on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

The festival is a great opportunity for birders throughout the United States and abroad to take expertly guided trips along the Alabama Coastal Birding trail, one of the most important migratory stopovers in the United States. Though many participants were already very familiar with the problems the Mississippi River Delta faces, we were able to connect some visitors with the region for the first time. And because those who love the outdoors are intimately connected with the health of ecosystems, we had no trouble recruiting signers to our petition to BP demanding that they accept responsibility in the gulf.

Events like this remind us that the Mississippi River Flyway is highly interconnected, and just as the delta’s land loss affects birds throughout the flyway, it also affects the birders and outdoorsmen who are dedicated to enjoying and protecting the wildlife along its migratory path. We are incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to connect with so many engaged conservationists throughout the three day event.  As the Migration Tour continues, we look forward to more opportunities to help spread the word that the delta’s crisis is a national issue. The delta’s loss is your loss.

Please sign our petition to BP – tell them to stop stalling, stop litigating and make the gulf whole.

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Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign to launch fall bird migration tour

October 3, 2012 | Posted by Delta Dispatches in Birds, Hunting and Fishing, Meetings/Events

By Ryan Rastegar, Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign Coordinator

Migratory flight paths, including the Mississippi Flyway (National Audubon Society)

The Mississippi River Delta Restoration Campaign is organizing a fall migration tour! Throughout the months of October and November, our staff will be organizing events up and down the Mississippi River to highlight the important role the delta plays in maintaining a healthy Mississippi Flyway.

The Mississippi Flyway is a bird migration route that our winged friends generally follow along the Mississippi River when migrating south in the fall and north in the spring. Birds typically use this route because there are no mountains to block their path, making the trip easier and more direct. This route also provides easy access to water and food. About 40 percent of all North American migrating waterfowl and shorebirds use the Mississippi Flyway, which accounts for the higher number of bird species found in those areas!

The Mississippi River Delta itself supports more than 400 species of birds, providing critical breeding, wintering, and migratory stopover habitat for 100 million individual birds each year, including approximately 5 million ducks and geese.

The Mississippi Flyway (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Unfortunately, after decades of abuse and mismanagement, the delta is disappearing rapidly, sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. The collapse of the delta has the potential to disrupt this migration path, thereby decreasing not only the number of birds in the delta, but also along the entire Mississippi Flyway. We can restore the delta by connecting the Mississippi River to its wetlands, but we must act now before it is too late.

We’ll be planning tour events over the course of the next month to raise awareness of this issue all across the flyway and recruit activists who are ready to join the fight to restore the Mississippi River Delta. Our first event is this week at the John Borom Birdfest in Fairhope, Ala. Check back here to find out where we’re going and register for an event near you! And be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for more updates!

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Hurricane Isaac Batters Louisiana Marshes, Uncovers Oil

September 13, 2012 | Posted by Elizabeth Van Cleve in Birds, BP Oil Disaster, Hurricane Isaac, Media Resources, RESTORE Act, Science, Wax Lake Delta, Wildlife

This story was originally published by the National Wildlife Federation.

By Craig Guillot, National Wildlife Federation

When Hurricane Isaac struck Louisiana on the seven-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, its winds and tidal surge caused four deaths and at least $1.5 billion in insured damages. For many residents around the Mississippi River Delta, Isaac brought back memories of two recent disasters to hit the coast — Katrina and the 2010 Gulf oil disaster. Before the storm even hit land, residents in some coastal communities noticed a rise in the number of tar balls washing ashore. Officials later discovered moderate amounts of tar balls and weathered oil in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Experts say scenes like this could be normal for decades to come and that Louisiana’s coast will require constant monitoring and a long-term plan for restoration. Despite advertising campaigns to the contrary, the region is still reeling from the Gulf oil disaster more than two years after the blow out of BP’s Macondo well.

Tar balls and oil reappears in the Mississippi River Delta

Even before Hurricane Isaac hit the coast, residents in communities from Grand Isle, La., to as far east as Gulf Shores, Ala., started to report an increase in tar balls washing ashore as the Gulf began to churn. Tar balls, sheen and various remnants of weathered oil were found following the storm in many of those areas including the pristine shorelines of Ship Island in Mississippi.

A National Wildlife Federation (NWF) team surveyed the waters and beaches near Port Fourchon, Elmer’s Island and Grand Isle on September 6 to survey the waters and beaches. While they did not find any evidence of significant oiling, they did find moderate amounts of tar balls on the beaches in Grand Isle. Tar balls have been a reality on Louisiana's coast for decades but Grand Isle residents say what was left on the beaches after Isaac was "a lot more than normal."

NWF Staff Scientist Alisha Renfro, Ph.D., said a number of tropical storms and weather events have washed up tar balls since the start of the 2010 disaster.

“They continue to wash up because there’s a lot of weathered oil still out there, either just offshore or just beneath the surface of the sand,” Renfro said.

NWF also made a trip out to Myrtle Grove, La., on September 7 to survey the damage that Isaac inflicted on the marsh. The eye of the storm first made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River and passed over some of the state's most fragile marshes before making a second landfall near Port Fourchon.

David Muth, Louisiana state director for NWF, said the team found evidence of localized marsh destruction. On his survey, Muth noticed hundreds of large chunks of marsh that had broken away and been deposited in open water.

“Marsh break-up occurred in areas that have a history of rapid marsh loss in Louisiana, near Myrtle Grove. Healthier marshes to the south showed no signs of break-up. The findings illustrate the importance of quickly building the authorized Myrtle Grove Sediment Diversion, which will build new marsh in this vital area.”

The NWF team also found three oiled pelicans near Myrtle Grove. A number of media outlets reported oiled birds and wildlife following the storm. While there is no connection between these findings and the Macondo disaster, Muth said, “This is further evidence that we have not yet completely learned the lessons of the Gulf oil disaster.

"Oil could be here for decades."

Even 23 years after the Exxon-Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, oil can still be found beneath the surface. Biologists say that "sub-lethal" effects to fisheries could linger in the Gulf of Mexico for years to come.

"It will probably be an issue for a long time, especially as many people conjecture that there are still tar mats laying on the bottom that you can't easily clean up," Muth said.

In April 2012, two years after oil started pouring into the Gulf, an NWF team found heavy oil still sitting just beneath the surface on small islands in Barataria Bay and Bay Jimmy. On one island, the oil was so abundant that it oozed to the surface under each foot step. Renfro said while oil may remain below the surface during the winter, it can emerge in the spring and summer when the heat softens it up and liquefies it. Many biologists believe that reappearing oil could be an annual occurrence in the summer months.

If there’s any good news, it’s that when oil comes to the surface, sunlight and weathering can help further break it down.

“Photo-oxidation from the sunlight helps break down that material even more. It also helps reveal it so that cleanup crews can get it. Hopefully we’ll have less and less over time,” Renfro said.

Last week, Louisiana State University ran lab tests for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and determined that the oil found on Grand Isle and Elmer's Island matched the footprint for the oil spilled from BP's Macondo well. BP later confirmed that the oil was from the well and that they would dispatch workers to clean it up.

Ed Overton, Ph.D., professor emeritus with the Department of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University, said that while oil is still out there, it is hard to tell exactly how much. Overton did say that storms can serve as “Mother Nature’s hurricane” in helping break down the oil. He believes that oil will degrade faster on the Gulf Coast than it did in Prince William Sound because of the geography of the shore.

“Our shoreline erodes and moves around more quickly. The problem with sandy beaches is that once it gets buried, you just don’t know where it is. We’ll likely see it for years but not at the level we saw in 2010,” Overton said.

Mississippi River Delta wetlands remain in a precarious state

Biologists and coastal restoration advocates say while the oil is an issue, it is only one part of a number of problems eating away at Louisiana’s wetlands. Oil has attacked the roots of plants and contributed to the death of marsh grass and mangroves but the encasement of the Mississippi River and saltwater intrusion has had a destructive impact for decades. In some areas of the marsh, the oil appears to have been the final straw.

Renfro also surveyed the Mississippi River by air on September 7 and saw heavily damaged patches of marsh between Belle Chase and Point a la Hache. She and Muth said there were clear differences in how untouched marshes fared compared to those that were heavily oiled during the summer of 2010.

“Pelican Island doesn’t look good at all. The mangrove has just been all brown and dead. It saw heavy oiling in 2010,” Muth said.

While marshes have always endured the winds and surges of hurricanes, Muth said he’s seen clear differences in how a healthy marsh can recover quickly. Further south in “healthier” areas of marsh, Muth said some parts looked almost invigorated by the storm where natural processes can deposit new layers of clay and sediment.

Renfro said the Wax Lake Delta is a clear example of how a thriving marsh can recover from a storm. After Hurricane Rita struck the area in 2005, damage to these wetlands was observed in the aftermath of the storm, but there was not a significant lasting impact. The Wax Lake Delta has been a rare success story in coastal restoration because it is fed sediment by the Atchafalaya River.

“The steady supply of mineral-rich sediments from the river help make these wetlands more resilient and allow them to recover quickly when damaged,” Renfro said.

NWF’s Greater New Orleans Program Manager Amanda Moore said it all underlines why the Gulf Coast needs a long-term comprehensive strategy for coastal restoration. NWF was instrumental in helping create and push for the passage of the RESTORE Act, a bill that ensures 80 percent of the fines and penalties from the Gulf oil disaster will be dedicated to Gulf Coast restoration.

Moore said its passage has been a monumental victory for the coast and that funding in the near future should help move along big coastal restoration projects. Ongoing monitoring of the impacts of the Gulf oil disaster will be needed to ensure a sound recovery.

“We knew that when the disaster happened, we'd be dealing with this for years to come. We need to keep vigilant and watching it because we could be dealing with this for a long time,” Moore said.

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