After Katrina: What To Expect

After Katrina: What To Expect

Fish and wildlife can come back from the devastating damage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, say the experts. But the pace and scope of the recovery are uncertain. (January 2006)

Pushing 145-knot winds and a storm surge exceeding 25 feet, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, 2005. Hitting between Grand Isle and Venice it ripped apart almost everything in Plaquemines Parish before turning northeastward. The eye of the beast barely missed downtown New Orleans as it passed over St. Bernard Parish and clobbered Slidell, north of Lake Pontchartrain.

On the northeast side of the eye, the most destructive part of the storm, Katrina ravaged nearly everything along the Gulf Coast from Waveland, Miss., to the Florida Panhandle. On its other side, it knocked down trees as far west as Lafayette. Although the hurricane winds didn't do as much damage to New Orleans as people predicted, the floodwaters from levee breaches inundated 80 percent of the city of nearly 500,000 people. Low suburbs, especially around Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, saw water more than 20 feet deep over roads.

Naturally, the focus immediately turned to the misery of the people living in that area. Many evacuated ahead of the storm, but thousands remained, needing the basic necessities of food, water and shelter. Hundreds died in once vibrant communities now strewn with rubble and debris.

In just a few hours, much of the petroleum drilling, shipping, storing and refining capacity of the United States lay in ruins. The damaged oil industry coupled with the devastation of the port facilities along the Mississippi River, the gateway to the world for most of Heartland America, rocked the international economy.

Katrina also smashed the commercial and recreational fishing industries of southeast Louisiana and other coastal states by sinking boats, destroying marinas, bridges, roads and infrastructure. Southeastern parishes depend heavily upon fishing, which contributes $1 billion to the Louisiana economy each year. Before the storm, many people visited Delacroix, Hopedale, Shell Beach, Venice, Empire, Buras, Lafitte, Grand Isle, Fourchon and other places to fish for redfish, speckled trout and flounder. They bought bait, gasoline, food and other supplies, contributing to the local economy.

In addition, about 515 registered charter captains offered trips throughout Louisiana before the storm hit, attracting recreational anglers from all 50 states. Many visitors stayed several days buying supplies, food, marina services and accommodations. About 300 of those captains lived and/or worked in Jefferson, Plaquemine, St. Bernard, Lafourche or St. Tammany parishes. Now, they face an uncertain future.

Compared to the human catastrophe unleashed on that August Monday and immediately following, the plight of animals hardly registers in the minds of people. However, the storm not only killed people, but wildlife and fish. More important, it ravaged some of the most productive and fragile wetland habitat in the world, perhaps permanently.

Before the storm, Louisiana contained more than 40 percent of the wetlands in the United States. However, the state loses more than 80 percent — about 25 square miles — of the wetlands eroded away each year in the United States. Most of that occurs in the coastal marshes of southeast Louisiana, exactly where Katrina hit the hardest. In just a few hours, this massive storm greatly accelerated that loss, although exact figures could not be determined by press time. Some areas might take years to recover, if they recover at all.

"Our long-term concern is what happened to the marshes themselves," says Harry Blanchet, the finfish program manager in the Marine Fisheries Division of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge. "Marshes are nursery grounds for many species. The question is, how much marsh did we lose with Katrina."

The salty storm surge flooded prime fishing areas in southeast Louisiana and neighboring states. As salty water poured into fresh or brackish marshes, bass and other freshwater species that could not find sweeter water died. The Louisiana Delta recently hosted three Bassmaster Classic events, dubbed the Super Bowl of professional fishing. The area south of New Orleans set many Classic records for the numbers of fish caught.

"With a storm surge as huge as the one Katrina produced, it pushes a lot of salt water into brackish or fresh areas," said Mark Fisher, a marine biologist and the science director for the Coastal Fisheries Division of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. "That displaces a lot of fish. Largemouth bass and other freshwater species can tolerate limited amounts of salt water, but too much would kill them. If they can't move to other areas where they find better conditions, they die. If a lot of salt water poured into freshwater habitat, most of those fish probably died. If an area is completely wiped out, it will have to be restocked."

When Hurricane Andrew in 1992 smashed into the Atchafalaya Basin near Morgan City, hundreds of millions of fish died. The storm disturbed organic matter at the bottom of lakes and bayous. As organic matter decays, it consumes oxygen. Without oxygen, fish cannot survive.

After Hurricane Andrew hit, state and private officials conducted massive restocking efforts in the affected areas. Many anglers caught bass in unaffected waters and transported them to the Atchafalaya Basin. The LDWF heavily stocked Florida-strain largemouths to increase the amount of fish in the area and to improve the genetics with the goal of producing bigger bass. The state also tightened the rules for keeping bass in many areas.

The initiatives worked fabulously. Within a few years, the Atchafalaya Basin began to produce more fish than ever before. Average sizes of bass also increased. With a 14-inch minimum-size limit, bass could live long enough to spawn at least once. About a decade after Andrew hit, the Atchafalaya Basin began to produce an occasional double-digit largemouth.

Saltwater species probably fared better during Katrina than freshwater species. Most freshwater species could not escape the brine. However, fish in coastal bays could move to other areas or take refuge in deep Gulf waters. Fish trapped in shallow marshy ponds or bayous, though, encountered difficulties. If they survived, they face more challenges.

"It's going to be a long time before people start fishing again in some parts of southeast Louisiana," Blanchet said. "If water covers the tops of marsh grass for too long, grass dies and water loses its oxygen carrying potential. Any fish trapped in that area will die. Just like after Andrew, dead grass and other decomposing organic matter draws a lot of oxygen out of the water. When the waters flow out of the marshes and swamps again, that water is usually hypoxic. If fish beco

me trapped and can't move out or find better habitat, they'll die. It's not so much in the open bays and sounds but in bayous, ponds and marsh lakes that fish suffer most."

Fortunately, marshes from parts of Terrebonne Parish westward suffered little or no damage. In Lake Charles, about 200 miles west of New Orleans, not even a drop of rain hit the ground when the hurricane passed through southeast Louisiana. The Sabine, Calcasieu and Vermilion estuaries remain undamaged. As far east as Cocodrie, in Terrebonne Parish, some sportsmen returned to fishing the vast coastal marshes just days after the storm passed.

While waters, habitat and facilities in southwest Louisiana remained intact, the storm still directly impacted the area economy. Many guides around Sabine and Calcasieu lakes suffered trip cancellations in the wake of the storm, although their facilities and fisheries remained untouched. Many people from other states cancelled trips based entirely upon the negative publicity Louisiana received from the national news media in the aftermath of the storm.

Like people, animals either flee or hunker down to try and ride out storms. Ground dwellers, such as deer and rabbits, probably suffered the most from high-water levels. If they did not find any dry ground, they drowned. In forests, deer and other animals can generally survive a storm better than they can in open marshes. In a swamp or a forest, deer, rabbits and other animals can often cling to trees, stumps or floating debris and survive. In a marsh, though, animals may find little high ground and no way to escape the rising waters.

Winds messed up squirrel habitat by knocking down trees, but probably didn't kill many squirrels. A squirrel could simply cling to a tree to ride out the storm, as long as the tree didn't fall. Birds could fly from danger. The storm surge probably displaced many aquatic animals, such as alligators and nutrias, but animals adapted to living in water probably survived better than terrestrial animals.

While few ducks arrived by the time the storm hit in late August, only the few early blue-winged teal and resident mottled ducks could fly elsewhere. Certainly, the storm devastated some of the best waterfowl habitat in North America. The marshes of southeast Louisiana typically attract a large portion of the ducks that winter in the Mississippi Flyway.

The storm and the accompanying surge of salty water from the Gulf of Mexico rolled over several wildlife management areas including the 34,520-acre Salvador/Timken complex, about 12 miles southwest of New Orleans; the 33,480-acre Pointe-Aux-Chenes WMA, in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes; and the 39,583-acre Biloxi WMA on the southern shoreline of Lake Borgne near Hopedale.

"When the waters flow out of the marshes and swamps again, that water is usually hypoxic. If fish become trapped and can't move out or find better habitat, they'll die. It's not so much in the open bays and sounds but in bayous, ponds and marsh lakes that fish suffer most."

Probably the most fragile and the hardest hit area, the 66,000-acre Pass-A-Loutre WMA and the nearby 48,800-acre Delta National Wildlife Refuge took the brunt of Katrina's wrath. Located about 30 miles downriver from Venice, the extremely fertile fresh to brackish marshes of lower Plaquemines Parish typically host thousands of waterfowl including every species found in the lower Mississippi Flyway each year. In addition, the Delta serves as the jump-off platform for birds migrating farther south and the first land welcoming them back on their northern migrations.

"We may have lost that habitat for ducks," laments Dave Moreland, the LDWF Wildlife Division administrator. "It was some of the best duck habitat in the country. Ducks can go somewhere else, but if we lose habitat, ducks can't live in that area."

Surprisingly, the Delta marshes also held a thriving deer herd, even though the area held little solid ground except river levees and occasional sandbars, spoil banks or low ridges barely above the tide line. A huge portion of Plaquemines Parish, including most of the marshes south of Venice, disappeared under surging seawater.

"We had a fairly good deer herd at the mouth of the Mississippi River. That herd may be wiped out," Moreland reports. "I understand some Mississippi River levees were out of the water. If they could swim to higher ground, deer might have survived. If not, they drowned. Historically, that herd supplied stock for half the state when we released deer in the 1960s."

In late September, LDWF secretary Dwight Landreneau said that deer and rabbit seasons would be closed in the Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, at least temporarily.

"The season closure will remain in effect until more detailed surveys of the impact to these two species and their habitats can be conducted and a review of the finding is evaluated," said Landreneau.

Heavily forested in the northern two-thirds of the property, the 35,032-acre Pearl River WMA, near Slidell, also suffered extensive damage. Winds knocked down many giant trees. Salty waters covered the lower 10,000 acres of fresh to brackish marshes, another prime waterfowl wintering area.

"The marsh is devastated, and Pearl River WMA had extensive forest damage," says Jimmy Anthony, the LDWF official in charge of all wildlife management areas. "While wildlife resources may be extremely low, nature has a way of recovering, given time. Damage to the coastline may not recover, however."

In areas where habitat remains, trees and grass can sprout again. Fish and wildlife can again flourish. Nature can rebuild fish and game stocks much faster than people can rebuild cities. Nature abhors a vacuum. Once conditions return to normal in an area, remnant survivors or stock from adjacent areas quickly repopulate empty habitat.

"Nature is quite capable of responding faster and more effectively than people do," Blanchet says. "The things Man tries to put in place tend to disappear and have a hard time coming back. A hurricane does produce some benefits for the environment. Storms are a natural part of the system in which fish and animals live. Assuming the habitat survives, fish and wildlife can recover, but the entire geography of the affected area will change."

In the short term, fish will see little pressure in the hardest hit areas for quite some time. That might allow a slight bump in populations. In addition, because of the huge amount of runoff, estuaries receive an enormous influx of nutrients. More nutrients flowing into an estuary cause shrimp, crabs and baitfish to bloom after a severe storm.

"Normally, it doesn't take long for an area to recover from a hurricane once the floodwaters recede," Fisher says. "Usually, it just takes a few weeks. Of course, Katrina is an extreme case. If fish populations go down, young fish will see greater survival rates because larger fish are not eating them. That will increase productivity."

Less than a year after Hurricane Charlie ravaged Florida in August 2004, sportsmen recorded bumper crops of shrimp and crabs in the areas hardest hit. Game fish thrived with the abundance of forage species.

"A couple months after Hurricane Charlie went right through my area, we saw a huge bloom of shrimp and crabs," recalls Capt. Ralph Allen, a charter-boat skipper in Punta Gorda, Fla. "That winter, we were catching pot-bellied snook and redfish, when fish are usually more lean."

Nature always runs in cycles. For instance, if rising water forces rabbits and coyotes to share constricted areas, coyotes feast upon the cornered rabbits, at first. Rabbit populations drop drastically. When coyotes can no longer find rabbits, they may begin to die of starvation. As coyotes die, more rabbits survive to adulthood.

After water recedes, new plants grow with fewer rabbits to eat them. With little competition from their brethren, surviving rabbits find abundant food. Rabbit survival rates increase. As the rabbit population blooms, remaining coyotes find excellent hunting, so more of their offspring survive.

In addition, poor habitat for one species might make excellent habitat for another species. A storm knocking down trees in a forest displaces squirrels, but openings in the canopy may cause underbrush to flourish. Deer, rabbit and quail populations might blossom with the increased browse and cover.

"Over time, nature responds," Moreland says. "If some animals survive in areas, they will repopulate any habitat that can sustain them. In an area where most of the animals die, the remaining animals find more food, as the habitat recovers. They have better survivability."

While anglers won't return to their legendary southeastern Louisiana honeyholes anytime soon, fish and game stocks will eventually rebound. Perhaps, they might even come back better than ever. It has happened before -- many times before.

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