By Tom Moorman, Ph.D.
Complex, continentally important, diverse, bountiful, culturally rich, and economically significant—there is no shortage of descriptive terms for the wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico. Yet all of these terms fail to fully capture the scale and importance of this landscape to waterfowl and people. The productive wetlands of the Gulf Coast are the source of a rich waterfowling heritage, world-class recreational and commercial fisheries, unique cultures, and economic strength. Regrettably, all of those resources rest on a rapidly deteriorating foundation that is one of the most threatened wetland systems in North America.
Indeed, more than 90 percent of coastal wetland loss in the lower 48 states has occurred in the Gulf Coast region. More than 1.4 million acres of the historical coastal marsh of Louisiana and Texas have been lost, while nearly all the region's inland coastal prairie wetlands have been converted to other uses. The causes of these losses are many and complex, but underlying them all are large-scale human alterations of the hydrology that shaped this remarkable landscape. Levees along the Mississippi River, shipping and navigation channels, oil and gas exploration canals, urban development, water shortages, hurricanes, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have all contributed to habitat loss and degradation in this region.
Not surprisingly, wetland loss along the Gulf Coast has taken a toll on waterfowl and other wildlife. According to the Gulf Coast Joint Venture of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Louisiana's coastal marshes can support approximately 3 million fewer ducks today than they could in the 1970s. Equally troubling, research indicates that overwinter survival rates of female pintails in the Texas Mid-Coast region and southwest Louisiana are significantly lower than those of female pintails wintering in other areas. In addition, preliminary data suggest that populations of resident mottled ducks have declined in Louisiana and Texas in recent years.
Restoring this region's capacity to support healthy waterfowl populations is the objective of Ducks Unlimited's Gulf Coast Initiative. In keeping with DU's long-standing tradition of on-the-ground habitat conservation, a primary focus will be the restoration and enhancement of high-quality coastal marsh and rice prairie wetland complexes of great importance to waterfowl. Since DU began working along the Gulf Coast in 1986, we have conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of this valuable habitat across this region. But much more must be done to ensure a bright future for this region's wetlands and waterfowl.
Given the scale of the challenges and the potential solutions, public policy is another important component of DU's Gulf Coast Initiative. For example, DU supports Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and elements of its Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast that are important to waterfowl. This 50-year plan calls for a variety of large-scale restoration efforts, including diverting fresh water and sediment from the Mississippi River to rebuild coastal marsh in southeastern Louisiana and placing structures on navigation channels to prevent saltwater intrusion from damaging fragile interior wetlands. These freshwater and intermediate marshes support an abundance of submerged aquatic plants, which are a key food source for gadwalls, American wigeon, and a variety of other waterfowl.
Farther west, in coastal Texas, a rapidly growing urban population coupled with severe drought has created water shortages threatening agricultural habitats that support many of the region's waterfowl. Water is essential for rice production along the Texas coast, and harvested rice fields provide abundant food for ducks and geese in the form of waste rice, weed seeds, and invertebrates. DU recently hired a conservation policy expert to serve as an advocate for waterfowl, waterfowl hunters, and rice agriculture when difficult water-allocation choices are made in the state capital. DU's goal is to ensure that policymakers understand how their decisions may affect continental waterfowl populations.
DU's final objective is to educate and inform Congress and other federal policymakers about the importance of conserving Gulf Coast wetlands. Last year, DU and its partners celebrated the passage of the RESTORE Act, which dedicates 80 percent of penalties and fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to habitat restoration and economic recovery. Between $5 billion and $17 billion are anticipated to flow to the Gulf States for habitat restoration work, much of which will directly benefit waterfowl. This is an unprecedented opportunity to restore wetlands and waterfowl habitat along the Gulf Coast at scales that may reverse the troubling, negative trends of the recent past.
Through the Gulf Coast Initiative, DU and its partners are poised to make a real difference for wetlands, waterfowl, and people in this region. But we can't do it without the continued support of DU members, volunteers, major sponsors, and other partners. For more information about how you can support DU's Gulf Coast Initiative, visit the DU website at ducks.org/gulfcoast.
Dr. Tom Moorman is director of science and public policy in DU's Southern region.