Saving America's Marsh

Coastal wetland loss and degradation are threatening Louisiana's rich hunting and fishing heritage
by Gary Koehler

Saving America's Marsh The doors to Buras Auditorium are unlocked promptly at five o'clock on a balmy Friday night in February. Byron Prest and a supporting cast of 13 Ducks Unlimited volunteers are ready and waiting. Between 350 and 400 guests are expected, a number almost equal to the entire population of this southeast Louisiana hamlet.

Located adjacent to the Mississippi River 64 miles south of New Orleans, Buras may be best known for its role in a 2005 drama starring Hurricane Katrina, which made its second angry landfall right here. The storm ravaged the area with winds of up to 200 mph. Before long, more than 20 feet of water covered the entire town.

Houses washed away. Businesses were destroyed. Schools closed for the final time. The venerable cement-and-brick auditorium, a landmark for more than 50 years, was damaged to the point where it had to be gutted and rebuilt. People lost their livelihoods. And nearly everything else. Except hope. Overcoming steep odds is a way of life in this part of the world.

"Ever since Katrina, our DU dinner has become as much a social gathering as anything," Prest says. "A lot of people left town and moved away after the storm. They come back here to see old friends and family. It's a big night."

Plaquemines Parish has hosted a DU fundraising event since the 1970s, when Warren Barroif of nearby Port Sulphur founded the first chapter. He later passed the chairman's torch to Leroy "Buddy" Cosse, a high school football coach, who then tapped Prest, one of eight of his former players on the current committee, to take over. 

Prest, who owns a boat dealership, has headed the group for the past 11 years. Natural attrition has taken its toll, but Prest happily reports that three first-year volunteers are in their late twenties. 

"They're young guys who took an interest in what we're doing. We're glad to have them," Prest says. "Most of the people who come to the dinner are from here, or at least used to live around here. There are a few commercial fishermen, oystermen, and those affiliated with the oil field in some way. And this year we have some people who are working in the area because of the oil spill."

The dinner went well, although a portion of the menu may seem foreign to most yankees. Not everywhere does one find an oyster bar, or red bean soup. The final head count was in the neighborhood of 430 DU supporters. The committee raised $98,491, net. Both numbers are likely to be among the state's top 10. Not bad for a community that was all but washed off the map. 

Of course, having a fabulous duck season always helps. "We had a lot of birds this year," Prest says. "There were some issues with water because it was dry and the Mississippi River was down and it was hard to get around. But besides that, it was a great season."

While some brown pelicans, black skimmers, and other birds were victims of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year reported finding less than 50 dead migratory waterfowl in affected areas. Gulf Coast wetlands, however, remain under siege. Since 2005, Louisiana has lost 340 square miles—more than 217,000 acres—of coastal marsh and shoreline habitat, including 215 square miles to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. More than 1 million acres of the state's coastal wetlands have disappeared during the past 60 years. The widespread loss of coastal marsh means less food for waterfowl. Research indicates that the Gulf Coast region may no longer have enough waterfowl foraging habitat to support duck populations at North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals.

A Threat to the Economy

Captain Ryan Lambert, director of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association and a DU member, runs a sport-fishing and duck hunting camp (cajunfishingadventures.com) headquartered in Buras. He has been guiding for 31 years. His finely appointed lodge is located near the auditorium. 

"We were without water and electricity for eight and a half months after Katrina," Lambert says. "We were the first ones to rebuild. But the oil spill was worse. Think about that."

Lambert last summer testified in Washington, D.C., at a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs. He provided personal insight on the short- and long-term impacts of the oil spill. 

The national media all but abandoned its coverage of the oil spill once the leak was capped. But massive cleanup crews remain on duty. There is much more to be done. 

And many questions still to be answered.

"I am most worried about the reproductive system of the speckled trout, crabs, shrimp, and other fish," Lambert says. "I think some species will be decimated. Some won't."

Sport fishermen remain leery. Lambert's business took a staggering hit following the oil spill. "I had $427,000 in cancelled trips in May and June alone. Boom, they were gone," Lambert says. "And no one else called. And they are still not calling. 

"People ask me how I know it's not the economy. I tell them I know it was the oil spill because my duck hunting trips were booked all season. The fishing side of my business is down 85 percent." 

The state's sport-fishing industry generates nearly $1 billion a year. On the commercial side, Louisiana fisheries provide up to 35 percent of the nation's total catch, with retail sales of $1.8 billion. The state ranks first in the annual harvest of oysters, shrimp, crabs, red snapper, sea trout, and mullet. 

But the greatest threat to fisheries and waterfowl remains coastal marsh loss, of which there are many causes. One is the alteration of natural marsh-building processes. The Mississippi River and its tributaries historically channeled fresh water, sediment, and nutrients downstream to the Gulf, spreading the wealth into the delta along the Louisiana coast. This lifeline fueled the productivity of Louisiana's coastal marsh. When the river was locked behind levees, the marsh-building sediment was directed away from the land and into the Gulf. Marsh loss now exceeds the rate of marsh creation. 

Saltwater intrusion has also taken its toll. Thousands of miles of shipping and navigation channels have been cut through the marsh over the years. This has allowed salt water from the Gulf to flow into interior marshes, where many plants cannot tolerate the increased salinity. When the vegetation dies, tidal energy and wind-generated wave action erode the marsh, converting productive wetland habitat into open water of little value to waterfowl, fisheries, or other wildlife.

"We are losing it so fast," Lambert says. "When I go back in the spring to fish a spot I fished in the fall, it's gone. The islands are gone. I've been watching it for a long time and I've never seen it disappear at such a rapid rate. Where I fish, 99 percent of the marsh is gone. The west side of the river used to be a duck factory. Now there's no food."

A Louisiana native and an avid duck hunter, Lambert is frustrated that his beloved marsh is in constant peril. "People down here are hard-working, salt-of-the-earth folks. They love to hunt and fish," he says. "That's what they do. I would hate to see that all go away. Something has to be done."
DU AT WORK IN LOUISIANA No one can ever accuse Ducks Unlimited of coming late to the party in Louisiana. Since launching its U.S. conservation program in 1985, DU has spent more than $51 million to conserve more than 328,000 acres of waterfowl habitat here. And in 2010 DU reached the 100,000-acre mark for coastal wetlands conserved in the state. 

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, DU committed to securing $15 million for coastal restoration and exceeded that goal in just five years. In response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, DU worked with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and private landowners to put more than 79,000 acres of additional waterfowl foraging habitat along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas to help support waterfowl and other migratory birds during the winter. 

DU is also active in the public policy arena on behalf of Gulf Coast conservation. In 2008, DU created a full-time policy position focusing solely on Louisiana conservation priorities. Last fall, DU sent a letter to Congress asking for action to ensure that penalties paid for violations of the Clean Water Act are directed to fund Gulf Coast restoration efforts instead of simply going into the U.S. Treasury's general fund. In addition, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal appointed DU CEO Dale Hall to the Governor's Advisory Commission on Coastal Protection, Restoration and Conservation. Hall serves as one of two representatives on the commission from the conservation community.

A Vanishing Way of Life

Captain Rene Dandry, who as a child spent summers with his grandparents at Lake Hermitage just north of Buras, shares Lambert's concerns. "I've been fishing and hunting down there since I was a little boy," says the 24-year-old Metairie native. "I spent every day in the marsh fishing for redfish and trout. When I go there now, it's amazing to see what's gone. It blows my mind. The places I used to fish—it's all open water now."

Dandry, who obtained a captain's license at age 17, participated in oil spill cleanup work in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. His duties varied from state to state, ranging from oil reconnaissance to actual cleanup with absorbent booms to hauling government agency personnel into the marsh.

While the oil spill took away many traditional regional jobs, it also created employment opportunities during the cleanup. Twelve of Lambert's 14 charter boat captains worked in some capacity on the spill. 

"The summer provides the main part of my income that holds me over through school," Dandry says. "I was worried last year because I never had any other kind of job besides charter fishing. We were fortunate to be able to work for BP. At first, everybody was really angry at BP, and many people still are. But BP also kept a lot of people working after the oil spill happened. That's the honest truth."

Dandry, who is pursuing a degree in agriculture at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, took time off school last year so he could keep working well into the fall. He is also among a handful of charter boat captains scheduled to participate in a study this spring that entails catching fish, such as tuna and grouper, which will then be tested by biologists for oil contamination.

"Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill were eye-openers for me," Dandry says. "I was happy working in Venice as a guide. I didn't plan on going to school. But the storm and the oil showed me that you can't take all of this for granted and assume that it's going to be like this forever. Just like that, it could be gone."

Dandry, a DU member, is also a duck hunter. A member of Haydel's Game Calls pro staff, he began waterfowl hunting at age 12 in the Buras and Venice areas. He has since become an accomplished caller, having finished in the top five in the state duck calling contest the past three years. 

"Hunting and fishing is a way of life down here. It really is," Dandry says. "That's all I've ever done. It kept me out of trouble. I have no other hobbies."

This past duck season also proved memorable for Dandry. "There was an enormous amount of feed," he says, a reference to the abundant submersed aquatic vegetation produced in marsh ponds when river water keeps them in a freshwater condition. "You had to find certain ponds, but a lot of people didn't realize that the interior marsh didn't get the oil. I was there the first week of the season and the hunting was unbelievable. 

"Venice is unique, especially in the winter," Dandry adds. "You can go shoot a limit of ducks in the morning and come back and catch a limit of trout in the afternoon."

Because of the time he has spent on the water, Dandry is well aware of how great a challenge it will be to simply conserve the coastal marsh that remains. "Where I live now, in Lake Charles, people my age recognize the problems," he says. "Those who grew up hunting and fishing like I did see the differences in the marsh. They pay attention to it. People who are just getting into it, they don't understand what's being lost. They don't know what it was like before."

Unless coastal wetland loss and degradation issues are addressed on a grand scale—and soon—future generations are destined to never know. The marsh and a treasured way of life are vanishing before our eyes.
BEARY EMBODIES STATE'S RICH DECOY-CARVING TRADITION At age 78, Andrew "Tom" Beary figures to be a senior statesman within the Louisiana decoy-carving fraternity. The carving tradition runs deep in the state—well into the 1800s. 

There is little wonder why. Located at the terminus of the Mississippi Flyway, Louisiana has hosted millions of wintering waterfowl for eons. Hunting ducks and geese has been a way of life here since before European settlers first pitched a tent.

A native of Thibodaux, Beary has been turning chunks of tupelo gum and cypress root into decoys since 1956. His mentor was the late Reme Roussell of nearby Raceland, recognized by many as being among the state's all-time finest artisans.

"I used to go and sit and watch Reme Roussell make decoys," Beary recalls. "He would let me stay all day if I wanted to. I use all my own patterns when I make my decoys, but Reme Roussell helped get me started."

In 1994, former DU board member George Secor researched and published The Index of North American Decoy Carvers and Factories. This reference book provides a compilation of names of carvers from across the nation. Five pages were devoted to Louisiana, with a listing of more than 1,000 documented carvers—the most of any single state.

"The old-timers, they would carve their decoys out of cypress root, which they could easily find when channels were dredged. Cypress root is hard to come by these days, so tupelo gum is used more now," Beary says.

The Louisiana decoy-carving tradition has experienced a resurgence. The state now has more than 100 active carvers. The roster reads like a Cajun telephone book: Allemand, Aucoin, Badeaux, Boudreaux, Brunet, Chavin, Cheramie, Duet, Hebert, Lefort, Legaux, Monnier, Verdin. Many of these contemporary carvers are members of the Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers and Collectors Guild (lwccg.org), which will host its 34th annual show and decoy-carving competition this fall at the Louisiana Wildfowl Festival.

"A lot of the old decoys were lost in storms and fires. But they're still out there," Beary says. "People down here just don't want to let them go."