So often while travelling, we tend to gaze right over things that are smack dab in front of our face. Sort of like not seeing the forest for the trees, I guess. Last week I had the opportunity, thanks to Ducks Unlimited, to get a closer look at a place that has played an enormous role in so many facets of life, not only for the locals, but on the national and international level as well. The southern Louisiana marsh and Mississippi Delta is that place. As duck hunters know, or should know, this marsh is crucial to duck production, wintering and fattening well over 9 million waterfowl, primarily from the Mississippi Flyway, each year. However there is a lot more to this area than just ducks. Louisiana’s coastal marsh is responsible for between 30-40% of the annual, commercial seafood harvest in the United States.
“Wintering waterfowl, along with shorebirds rely heavily on Louisiana’s coastal marshes for continued nourishment before making their trip back to the breeding grounds,” says Chris Jennings, Ducks Unlimited magazine web editor. “These marshes are critical for not only waterfowl and wildlife, but as storm surge protection for cities along the coast. The significance of the marsh is all around us – the cultural and economic impact of the marsh on this region and throughout the U.S. is astounding.”
Ducks Unlimited considers this area as one of their highest priority locations in North America. The reason being, despite all the wildlife relying on the marsh, the generations of families deriving their living from the marsh, and the health of the entire ecosystem, the marsh is experiencing huge losses every day. In about 2 generations, or 60-80 years, approximately 1 million, of the original 3 million acres of marsh have been destroyed and lost. The Mighty Mississippi is capable of dumping enormous amounts of sediment into the marsh, but in its current configuration, all this life giving sediment is lost by a river that plunges it’s nutrients far out into the deeper waters of the Gulf, bypassing and providing nothing to the shallow water marsh.
“What’s most important is that we need to let people understand that this is not a lost cause. There are steps we can take to stop the marsh loss,” Jerry Holden, Ducks Unlimited director of conservation programs for the Southern Region says. “Working with local and national partners, we believe that we can make that happen and reverse this trend.”
The answer is simple: As with many of the world’s major wetland systems, humans have dramatically altered the processes that created the Louisiana marsh. Sediment-laden flood pulses still travel the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, but we have successfully tamed the mighty river. No longer does the channel shift, due to extensive levee systems that contain the river from St. Louis nearly to the Gulf. In Louisiana, levees from Baton Rouge through New Orleans to the small community of Venice contain the river and prevent the wild shifts that create new marshland. (Dr. Tom Moorman “America’s Marsh”.)
Freshwater diversions coming from the river, of which there are a few, can pump some of the much needed marsh building sediments and nutrients into the marsh. These are like small, controllable channels that can direct small portions of the flow of the Mississippi into the marsh area and would not only provide needed nutrients, but would also actually begin rebuilding marsh in the area by depositing sediment. As great as that might seem, there are some local groups opposed to it. Oystermen and shrimpers both would most likely need to travel a small distance further to fill their vessels as the marsh grew. Oyster beds tend to grow in a band of brackish water that is neither totally saltwater or freshwater for several reasons. These beds would likely move to retain this particular band of water salinity as the marsh returned to its original size. The freshwater marsh would also push shrimpers a bit further out but the trawlers are regularly seen fishing in fairly close proximity to the current diversions. Seems like maybe the shrimp are benefitting from the additional nutrients floating about too.
“This all used to be land. Right where we are fishing is where I used to camp. This was not that long ago,” Capt. Joe DiMarco Sr. who grew up hunting and fishing the Louisiana marsh says. “It’s sad. There’s so many places like these that show up on our navigation charts, but they just aren’t there. It’s open water where land was last year.”
“This is the greatest ecological disaster ever…ever,” Captain Ryan Lambert, owner of Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras, Louisiana. “And it can be stopped. We are fighting to save the marsh – the ducks, the fish, the crabs and shrimp – and our culture.”