by Chris Jennings
Author's Note: I traveled to the Louisiana Gulf Coast recently to meet with waterfowl hunters and conservationists who could be affected by the oil spill. The goal wasn't to seek out oil globs—it was to show what's at stake in Louisiana waters. I learned that the true cost of this spill could be a way of life. This is part two in a three-part series.
Byron Prest, a disheveled look on his face, sits behind his desk as the owner of Delta Outboards in Port Sulphur, La. Now 47 years old, he still recalls his first day deep in the Plaquemines Parish marshes hunting ducks, when he was only five. Toting a side-by-side .410, the young Prest made the trip through the bayou because that's what his family did, so that's what he was going to do. Now he worries that the long-term loss of Gulf Coast wetlands could jeopardize his hunting heritage.
"Man, most of those places we hunted are gone today," Prest said. "It's amazing how much we've already lost. There are places we used to walk on dry land, and now they are under six feet of water."
Prest is the current chairman of the Plaquemines Parish DU committee and lives and breathes the Louisiana marsh. He is proud to say he was born and raised in the parish, he lives there, and his business is there. Prest also understands that these marshes, which are so much a part of his life, are now threatened not only by the ongoing issues of subsidence and coastal erosion but also by the oil that continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico.
"People around here are in panic mode to be honest with you," he said. "This is their life. I would say 95 percent of the parish does something in the marsh. You wanna know where most of my local DU committee is right now? They are fishermen, oystermen—they are out there trying to make a living if they can. Or they are oil rig workers. That's a way of life here.
"Right now, we have been looking at 13- or 14-foot river levels that have helped push freshwater into the marsh and keep the oil back," Prest said. "But, just like every summer, the Mississippi River is now dropping, and once we get that saltwater intrusion, the oil could move in."
If oil infiltrates the fresh and intermediate salinity marshes, it could affect migratory waterfowl and other birds this fall and winter. Currently, resident mottled ducks are the only waterfowl species threatened, but soon, blue-winged teal will begin to arrive in large numbers. It's the numbers that scare Prest, who has witnessed magnificent wintering waterfowl numbers in the coastal marshes since he was a child.
"Anybody who knows anything knows that this area has excellent duck hunting. It's good habitat," he said. "Ducks don't know not to come down here, and that's the issue we are facing."
In some years, the Louisiana coast can winter more than 13.7 million waterfowl. In mid-August blue-winged teal, which are currently enjoying favorable breeding conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region, will begin arriving on the coast. The question is, what will they find? Prest and many other Plaquemines Parish residents worry about the answer to that question.
It's been months since the Deepwater Horizon rig sank and oil began to spew into the Gulf of Mexico. Prest's boat repair shop is staying busy with cleanup boats and fishermen from other areas, but the future is at stake for Prest and his family. They have been through hurricanes and his business has continued to thrive for more than 20 years, but this environmental disaster has him more worried than ever before.
"Man, I went to bed last night at 9:30 and woke up at four in the morning thinking about this oil spill," he said, his voice rising and his hands getting more animated with each word. "What we are worried about is all the chemicals—the dispersants—along with the oil. No one knows the long-term effects of this. This is not like Katrina; it's worse because we don't know."