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Louisiana’s Ongoing Marsh Crisis

Why Louisiana’s marshes are disappearing at a rapid pace and what can be done to stop the habitat loss.

September 23, 2016
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— OPINION —

Louisiana marsh fishing
Mississippi River Delta marsh that’s critical habitat for redfish, seatrout, forage fish and crustaceans is vanishing at a rapid pace. The shorelines, islands and creeks are eroding so quickly that land loss is evident on a yearly, or even monthly basis. Sam Hudson / sportfishingmag.com

The death knell for Louisiana’s wetlands was first sounded in the 1920s after heavy destruction from two different hurricanes and the need to protect Americans from the mighty Mississippi River. The need for container ships to transport goods up and down the great river without running aground tolled that bell even louder. Levees, designed to scour shipping channels, were constructed up and down the river and have worked as intended. What was either not foreseen or else ignored was the long-term result. The river’s flow was sped up essentially blocking sediment from flowing toward its eventually resting place — the marshes of south Louisiana.

The numbers are mind numbing. From 1932 to 2010, Louisiana has lost 1,883 squares miles of land. Six years later, we have lost an area larger than the mighty Grand Canyon and are still losing land at a rate of one football field every 38 minutes.

When we built the levees to protect us from flooding, we stopped the very process that built Louisiana. Without the sediment and freshwater, saltwater has infiltrated the marshes killing the plant life that is its lifeblood. Without sediment to rebuild the land, we are also sinking.

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Louisiana’s loss, has become a gain for the state’s upriver, but not in a good way. Dams constructed along many river systems to maintain water levels for such things as electricity and navigation, have trapped sediment in rivers and reservoirs depleting their capacity to maintain water and killing off native fish species.

All is not lost, however.

The damage can be reversed. Louisiana has developed a Coastal Master Plan to combat land loss. The goal of the 50-year, $50 billion plan is to reverse the effects of coastal erosion. Long-distance sediment pumping and multiple diversion projects are at the heart of the proposal that’s designed to start saving some of what is being lost.

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Diverting the river back into the wetlands is the best and least expensive course to take. It builds lands and habitat. It’s relatively inexpensive and keeps working as long as the river flows into it. The freshwater aquatic vegetation created by the freshwater serves to protect the juvenile fish, shrimp and crabs from predation and gives them a place to grow. This same vegetation is what maintains the waterfowl through the winter and supplies them a stopping place to refuel when returning from Central America to the north.

View an interactive map of current Louisiana restoration efforts.

Overhead views of vanishing Louisiana marsh
One overhead map from 1973 and one from 2010 show just how much habitat loss has occurred near Buras, Louisiana. What was once an extensive marsh, mixed in with different bays and creeks, has turned into a giant bay that continues to expand. Courtesy Ryan Lambert

But why should you care about what’s going on in southern Louisiana?

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First and most important we are losing a national treasure. The estuary is the number one fishery in North America and the wintering grounds for millions of waterfowl. Almost half of the seafood (shrimp, blue crabs, fish and oysters) we eat in America comes from southern Louisiana.

If you are a duck hunter, the lack of food in the south will not maintain populations of healthy birds to return to nesting grounds each year. These marshes are also the buffer for storms such as Katrina. Every mile of marsh between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans helps knock the storm surge down one foot. Taxpayers spent billions of dollars rebuilding New Orleans and surrounding areas after Katrina. Today, there is even less wetland available to protect us from the next storm.

Sportsmen and women from all 50 states should care about one of the world’s most unique and economically important ecosystems. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do its part by fast-tracking the permit process to allow the restoration efforts outlined in Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan. At a rate of one football field of sediment loss every 38 minutes, time is not on our side.

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The next generation should be able to come to Louisiana and witness the best fishing in North America. It’s a place where you can catch bass, bream, redfish, trout, tuna and marlin — in the same day. They should be able to look up in the fall sky and see the greatest migration of waterfowl in the world. I’ve seen these things and now it’s our turn to stand up to make sure they are here in the future.

About the Author:

Captain Ryan Lambert is president of Cajun Fishing Adventures, a fishing and hunting lodge in Buras, Louisiana. Lambert has been extremely active in the Mississippi River Delta restoration efforts, advocating for the fishing and hunting communities locally, as well as briefing Congress in Washington D.C.

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