This is the second in a series of articles detailing the outdoor opportunities and environmental threats in the "Sportsman's Paradise" of the Louisiana marsh.
BARATARIA BAY, La. -- The small island was cramped with pelicans, each of them jockeying for a position on the small sliver of land, like trying to balance on the top of a basketball.
In the two years since the Deepwater Horizon sent waves of oil into Barataria Bay, islands like this have become an increasing concern. It’s now known as “Cat Island,” a moniker given the little dots of land in Cat Bay that once were a big key to the burgeoning life of the Louisiana marsh.
Check out the photo gallery of shrinking Cat Island
Before the oil spill, this particular land mass was more than 5 acres, filled with lush vegetation and mangrove trees. Today it has shrunk to less than an acre, with no mangroves and very little vegetation. This is Ground Zero when it comes to the impacts of the oil spill. Two years ago this was the center of attention on the evening news as oil from the Gulf entered the marsh.
Many of the small islands in Cat Bay were the first to get hit by oil, and some say they have absorbed the greatest amount, which has killed most of the vegetation. With no root structure to hold the soil, the habitat has shrunk to almost nothing.
The islands are the best example of the impacts the oil spill has had in the marsh. Pelicans crowded on top of a shrinking nesting area are obvious, like polar bears sitting on top of a melting iceberg.
It’s the not-so-obvious impacts, though, that concern the residents of south Louisiana: An island losing its vegetation and mangroves starts a domino affect that has far reaching implications.
“When a place like this loses the mangroves that used to hold all the vegetation, you lose the shrimp that used this island as a hatchery,’’ said Capt. Mike Frenette, a guide who has spent his life in the marsh. “You lose your smaller baitfish, your mullet, your pogies and menhaden. All of that used to survive in this area where they would migrate offshore, so all your juvenile fish, baby speckled trout, baby redfish, baby flounder could feed on them and survive.
“This used to be a hatchery for the fish and a nesting area for the birds, and it’s gone now.”
Frenette has been outspoken on the impacts of the oil spill, fearing that it’s true impacts are being forgotten by the major media, while equally fearing that if the alarm sounds too loudly people will stop coming to the area altogether.
“The problem is this is not an isolated incidence,’’ Frenette said. “You can go from the mouth of the river all the way back up through the areas that were impacted by the oil spill and you can see a lot of deterioration, accelerated deterioration in those areas.
“We’ve lost so much vegetation that it’s not holding the sediment that used to keep those islands and those chains of land together. That was all part of a major estuary, probably one of the richest estuaries in the United States, and this is where all of our marine life is developed.
“It’s concerning. What’s going to happen in the next few years as these areas are lost because the habitat that is needed to create that juvenile fishery has disappeared since the oil spill?"
Frenette has other concerns as well. Along with the obvious acceleration of the loss of habitat, he is seeing a decline in the fishing for some species.
“Before the oil spill, speckled trout were abundant,’’ he said. “Since then we’ve seen a tremendous decline in those fish in the area that the oil spill impacted in southern Plaquemines Parish. For all practical purposes, in the last couple of years our speckle trout fishing has gone from a tremendous fishery to almost a nothing fishery.
“Certainly there’s got to be some correlation between that and the loss of spawning grounds and the loss of the vegetation and the loss of areas where these fish are raised.”
Soil erosion isn’t something new to this area. It has been an ongoing issue for decades in the Louisiana Marsh, well before the oil spill. But some are quick to point out: “It’s far easier to kill a sick marsh than it is to kill a healthy one.”
Two years after the oil spill, the marsh remains sick.
“There were some problems with coastal erosion in Louisiana,’’ Frenette said. “We all know that. I don’t think anybody can deny that. I think that’s a problem that has existed for the last 25 or 30 years. I think Katrina took a big chunk of that overnight.
“You have two catastrophic circumstances within a period of 4 or 5 years that combined have placed a lot of negative effects on the estuary itself. One is a natural disaster. One was a manmade disaster. And that to me is the difference, where you draw the line.
“You can’t control a natural disaster as far as a hurricane or a storm, but certainly when it’s a manmade disaster that’s something that can be controlled.”