Dr. Tom Moorman's Letter on the Gulf Coast

Before and after the oil spill, DU's habitat work continues

With the situation changing rapidly along coastal Louisiana due to the recent oil spill, DU scientist Dr. Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning in the Southern Region, offered these thoughts and observations concerning the coastal areas where DU works to provide habitat to sustain millions of wintering waterfowl and the resident mottled duck populations.

As I continue to monitor the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I find myself deeply saddened and concerned for the people, wildlife and wetlands along the Gulf Coast. My relationship with the Louisiana coastal marshes began what now seems now like a long time ago. In 1987, as a young graduate student, I began a study of mottled ducks. I had the good fortune to live for two years in Grand Chenier in Cameron Parish and to be out in the marsh daily collecting data for my research on mottled ducks. While there, I was schooled by some of the best coastal marsh managers and naturalists in the country. I soaked it all in and learned everything I could – but I did not realize then how much the marsh gets into your blood, and how it can become part of the fabric of one's life. It is the place where I came to understand what the phrase "connection to the land" really means.

Locally and regionally the residents of the Gulf Coast are vitally connected to the marsh – for many it is where they go to work to support their families. Some 2 million residents or 47 percent of the population of Louisiana lives in the coastal parishes. Many have livelihoods that depend in some way on the marsh. Yet, in the broader sense, we all must remember we are connected to the land, and we are all connected to the Louisiana coastal marsh.

It is difficult for some to define "connection to the land" because in one sense it is an emotional connection that is hard to convey, but in another it is a very real connection that can be represented by statistics. While the facts have been stated by many, they are worth repeating: (1) these wetlands comprise the most important wintering area for waterfowl in North America; (2) the Louisiana coastal wetlands serve as nursery grounds and ultimately provide more than 20 percent of the commercial seafood landings in the lower 48 states – including the lion's share of the shrimp and blue crabs we enjoy on our tables; (3) about 20 percent of the waterborne commerce of the United States arrives or departs via ports protected by the Louisiana coastal marsh; (4) recreational hunting and fishing is approximately a $2.7 billion dollar economic engine in the state, much of it fueled by coastal marsh related fishing and waterfowl hunting opportunities; (5) and yes, when offshore oil and gas production is considered, Louisiana ranks first in crude oil production, and second in natural gas production – energy that flows throughout the country and an important factor in the nation's economy.

Last fall I had the opportunity to return to the Mississippi River coastal marshes to hunt teal near Buras and Venice, Louisiana – areas directly in harm's way from the oil spill. I was struck once again by the richness of the wetlands, by the presence of aquatic plants that provide bountiful food for waterfowl, and by the earthy smells that signal a high state of ecological productivity. It was September, so the majority of the more than 4.7 million waterfowl that may winter in the region had not yet arrived. Blue-winged teal were there in the tens of thousands. Resident mottled ducks seemed like they were everywhere. We enjoyed watching them decoy time and again as we waited on flights of teal. Each morning, with the break of dawn, the sky was filled with wading birds and shorebirds on their way to feeding areas in the marsh. From our blind, we saw hundreds if not thousands of resident common egrets, great blue herons, roseate spoonbills, and black-necked stilts, and also good numbers of migrants like the prairie-nesting marbled godwit that uses the same upland prairie grasslands for nesting as do the blue-winged teal that were our quarry.

For migratory birds, that is what is at risk – a vital wetland system that is a critical habitat link they require to fulfill their life cycle. The risk is now escalated, immediate and imminent resulting from the oil spill, but the risk and threat to these wetlands were present before the oil spill, and will remain until we restore the system by reconnecting the Mississippi River to the marshes it created. That is what we must do and what DU will continue to focus on.

At this time it is not possible to say what impacts the oil spill may have on waterfowl or all of the other wetland-dependent birds, but we certainly can say that the spill adds a new dimension of risk to an already highly threatened but critically important wintering area. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan Gulf Coast Joint Venture (GCJV), of which DU is a long-standing board member, estimated that in the 1970s the marshes of Louisiana wintered some 9.2 million ducks. Gadwalls, northern pintails, blue-winged and green-winged teal, northern shovelers, mallards, American wigeon and lesser scaup dominate the winter population of waterfowl. The GCJV goal remains to provide sufficient feeding habitat to support those millions of ducks each winter.

In more recent years, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries surveys typically find 1.8 to 2 million waterfowl in the coastal zone. Are waterfowl numbers indicative of a deteriorating coastal marsh system? Are the ducks telling us something? The GCJV scientists, through work in part supported by DU, now estimate that the coastal marshes provide only about 60 percent of the feeding habitat needed to support desired population goals based on 1970s surveys. That new information should sound alarms across the continent for anyone concerned about waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. Keep in mind these estimates were developed as part of our ongoing science-based efforts to inform the scale and direction of GCJV and DU Louisiana coast conservation work, and they do not reflect any near-term or long-term damage that may result from the oil spill. Regrettably, it is possible the spill will cause additional long-term damage that will require additional restoration work – and the staff and financial resources to accomplish that work.

A growing body of science reminds us that our direct restoration programs alone are not keeping pace with ongoing rates of marsh loss in Louisiana – loss rates that existed prior to the spill. DU responded to this information with a commitment not only to increase our on-the-ground conservation efforts along the coast, but also by hiring staff to work on important aspects of public policy that affect coastal restoration. DU has very carefully considered our Louisiana coast conservation efforts, and in the process of that inward look we acknowledged the scale of this restoration is bigger than any single agency or organization can solve. Hence, there remains a critical role for effective work in the public policy arena to garner the resources and political will and commitment to restore these ecologically and economically critical, but highly imperiled coastal wetlands. Our approach on the Louisiana coast, as it is in our other highest priority conservation regions across the continent, is to use the best available science as a foundation to grow our direct conservation program and public policy efforts, all of which are focused on our overriding goal to sustain the important functions and values of coastal Louisiana in perpetuity.

DU has for many years, along with many of our conservation partners, sought to raise awareness that there is an alarming ecological crisis in coastal Louisiana. Where once there were over 3 million acres of dynamic, productive coastal wetlands so important to people, waterfowl, other wetland wildlife, and hugely important recreational and commercial fisheries, now less than 2 million acres remain – and some 20,000 acres of what remains is lost annually. Gulf CoastAs humans, we seem to have difficulty responding to threats that do not feel imminent – 20,000 acres of marsh lost annually in a system that still has about 2 million acres may not feel like an imminent threat. However, put into a different time scale – an hourly time scale – an area of Louisiana coastal marsh the size of a football field is lost every half-hour. Some ecologists have suggested the system is on the brink of collapse – conclusions drawn from science a few years ago – well before this catastrophic oil spill. The threats were imminent prior to the oil spill – and now there is yet another blow that only serves to increase the imminence.

DU has been working to restore coastal Louisiana for more than 20 years. I have been fortunate to work for DU on this issue for nearly 19 years. We know from science we need to restore at least 250,000 acres of coastal freshwater marsh ponds just to meet the needs of wintering waterfowl. That was prior to any impacts the oil spill may have, and a need that will remain, and possibly be significantly increased, after the oil spill is stopped and cleaned up. DU has contacted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other state and federal partners to offer any assistance that we can in the near-term. We continue to recognize, however, that our commitment to restoration of coastal Louisiana must be long-term with an eye toward sustaining the ecological processes that created these continentally significant wetlands.

We continue to receive many calls asking how people can help in light of the disastrous oil spill. We have posted phone numbers and links on our website for people to call for additional information or to report spill-related damage. Professionals in the industries and government agencies are the first responders – those whose job is to stop the flow of oil, and then clean up what has spilled, and to rehabilitate any wildlife exposed to oil. While those immediate, high-priority tasks are completed, whether it is in the weeks or months ahead – DU remains committed to growing our programs – habitat restoration, public policy and advocacy, and science to inform both – with an eye toward restoring the Louisiana coast to a highly productive, resilient and sustainable system so it can get into the blood of future generations.

We must act on the best science we have, learn as we go where necessary and adjust our conservation efforts as needed along the way. We must do so with a real sense of urgency. We owe it to future generations to ensure coastal Louisiana is there for them to enjoy its rich bounty of fish and wildlife, for them to sit in a blind at dawn and see the eons-old traditional morning flights of teal, shorebirds and wading birds – so it can get in their blood, connect them to the land and foster them to become the next generation of scientists and conservationists.

Tom Moorman, Ph.D.
Director of Conservation Planning
Southern Region
Ducks Unlimited Inc.

DU members with questions about the Gulf Coast oil spill should contact Andi Cooper, DU regional communications biologist at acooper@ducks.org