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The Next Steps
As the oil recedes from the Gulf, habitat restoration projects are breaking ground.

The sun is shining, and the oil has stopped spewing. Audubon’s David Ringer and Melanie Driscoll are observing birds on the Cat Islands, marshy specks of land in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay. Hundreds of brown pelicans nest here. So do roseate spoonbills, black-crowned night herons, great egrets, and laughing gulls. In June these islands were ringed with oil. Now healthy-looking juvenile pelicans crowd the shore, and bright-green new marsh grass is growing.

The good news doesn’t belie the fact that Louisiana’s wetlands are still imperiled—much of the Mississippi River sediment that replenishes places where shorebirds thrive, like the Cat Islands, other marshes, and sandy beaches, continues to be trapped behind dams and dikes. Furthermore, canals carved out decades ago by oil and gas companies and the shipping industry are eroding marshes from the inside out. Each year about 25 square miles of Louisiana wetlands erode and subside into the sea—an area the size of a football field every 40 minutes. “These are not just Louisiana’s wetlands, these are America’s wetlands, and one thing the oil spill did was focus the country’s attention on the resources and fragile environments of this region,” says Driscoll, the director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative. 

Fines that will be levied on BP under the Clean Water Act and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment could eventually funnel billions of dollars to wetland restoration, though none has been allocated yet. In the meantime, a handful of already-planned projects are now moving forward with renewed purpose. From building oyster-shell reefs and sandy headlands to transforming rice fields into wetlands, new habitat created across the state will be a boon for wildlife and those who rely on Louisiana’s biological resources.

Next spring, for instance, under a $31 million federal grant, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will begin dredging coarse sand and clay offshore and then pump it to an eroding barrier headland near Port Fourchon, a large oil industry port in southern Louisiana. It will create a 250-acre swath of beach with sand dunes that will be planted with native grasses. Behind this, the agency will put in 150 acres of marshland, an area that could expand over time as more sediment is trapped naturally.

In southeast Louisiana, The Nature Conservancy is collaborating with Coastal Environments Inc. to build oyster reefs, a $4.3 million project funded by a federal stimulus grant. The group will pack recycled oyster shells from shucking houses into steel frames that will be placed in shallow water along vulnerable shoreline. As similar projects have shown, burgeoning oyster populations form a reef, which attracts fish, crabs, and shrimp, all creatures affected by the oil spill. The reef absorbs wave energy, trapping suspended sediments and eventually, when planted with marsh grass, forming marshes, says TNC’s Amy Smith Kyle.

Ducks Unlimited is getting rice farmers in southwestern Louisiana to flood their fallow fields, creating wetlands that attract waterfowl and shorebirds like dowitchers and sandpipers. This effort has the side benefit of luring the birds away from oiled marshland. Nearby, at the Paul J. Rainey Sanctuary, Audubon is restoring wetlands with a small versatile dredge and working with TNC to build a series of oyster reefs. As the Gulf oil disaster fades from the headlines, forging ahead with such projects will prove essential for restoring and rebuilding this battered ecosystem.
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