Day 10 – November 12
Our journey on the Acadiana took us through the Houma Navigation Channel to Terrebonne Bay, all under a sunny, clear blue sky with a light breeze. With the sun on our faces, we crowded at the front of the boat, binoculars in hand, and identified all of the birds that we saw, with the help of Prof. Wilderman. It was simply incredible what we saw: double crested cormorants flying solo and bobbing low in the water, green herons, white ibises, flocks of white pelicans, brown pelicans, snowy egrets, great white egrets, roseate spoonbills flying gracefully in the distance over the golden marsh grass, a bald eagle perched majestically on a bare tree branch, and gulls bobbing in the waves. We even saw bottlenose dolphins leaping from the water alongside our boat! All around us, was the beauty of the marsh; but we didn’t have to look far to see a gas flare from a distant oil well, several nearby signs marking the location of oil and gas pipelines, and the noticeable presence of open water that used to contain more marsh vegetation around the navigation channel.
Once we reached Terrebonne Bay, we began our sampling. Nicole, with the help of Carl and Van, demonstrated the use of a ponar dredge to sample benthic organisms and sediment. We also used an otter trawl net to sample large, epibenthic organisms – such as shrimp, fish, squid, and jellyfish – and a plankton net to collect plankton – such as copepods, fish larvae, and crab larvae – from the top of the water column. We all crowded around the sorting table, like gulls to a feast of fish, wanting to touch all the organisms we caught in our trawl net and not wanting to miss a word from Nicole as she identified each of the fish.
Back in the lab at LUMCON, after a lunch of Cajun stew, Nicole explained the food chain of the bay, from phytoplankton and zooplankton to filter feeders and predators, and also taught us fish anatomy. From there, we moved down the hall, to meet with Dr. Denise Reed, who fortunately was able to change her meeting on climate adaptation with President Obama’s staff to a phone conference, so that she could be here talk to us about restoration plans for coastal Louisiana.
Denise Reed, a geomophologist and Chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of New Orleans, is one of the leading scientists working on plans for Louisiana coastal restoration. Her presentation on restoring a sustainable coastal ecosystem in southern Louisiana added another dimension to our understanding of coastal restoration, different from that of Prof. Earl Melancon, the shellfish biologist we heard from on Tuesday who supports freshwater diversions only if they are managed to maintain current fisheries. Denise Reed’s perspective on coastal restoration also dramatically differed from that of Kerry St. Pe, Director of Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, whom we met with yesterday and who supports the use of pipeline sediment techniques as a faster alternative to freshwater diversions for building marshland. Unlike Earl Melancon and Kerry St. Pe, Denise Reed supports Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast developed in 2006, which contains as one of its goals the use of natural ecosystem processes to produce a sustainable coastal ecosystem that is self-organizing. The Master Plan proposes a rerouting of the southern Mississippi River, before it reaches the Bird’s Foot Delta, into two areas of shallow water, using freshwater diversions. This plan recognizes that not all of the marshland that has been lost can be regained, because dams along tributaries to the Mississippi River have decreased the sediment load in the river by 50%. Denise also made the point that the productivity of fisheries will not be negatively affected, but their locations within the marsh will change. This all connects back to the restoration objectives she proposed – that the ecosystem and all of the processes that sustain it need to be restored, and not just the presence of marshland. Denise Reed’s presentation, after those by notable scientists from previous days, has made us realize just how difficult decisions are for the state in both creating and implementing restoration plans, since not all scientists can even agree on what should be done or what the goals should be. All of them, including Denise, have made convincing arguments for their restoration proposals.
On a lighter note, after a traditional Louisiana fried seafood dinner, Carl Sevin, the Captain of the Acadiana, told us about his life and work, living off the land and the water as a Cajun and a fisherman in the local area. Until foreign imports drove shrimp prices down and before working for LUMCON, Carl used to be a full time commercial fisherman – a shrimper during the summer months and an oysterman during the winter months. He started working on his father’s boat at the age of fifteen and made it his living. Seven days a week, rain or shine, the work was far from easy and because of the current shrimp market, he doesn’t want his two sons to take up commercial fishing. But even still, in laid back Cajun fashion, he related tales and humorous anecdotes of alligator trapping using rotten meat, wrestling an alligator, and even stories about the antics of his pet mink. The Cajun lifestyle is both grueling and enjoyable, full of back-breaking work and amusing memories; a lifestyle like no other, and one that relies on the health and resilience of Louisiana’s coastal marshland.