Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Apocalypse in Barataria Bay

The Bald Cypress Swamp of Barataria Preserve, which is more biologically diverse than the Everglades and serves as a nursery and breeding ground for the gulf's shrimp, crab, oyster and fish. Photo by Carolyn Cole for The Los Angeles Times

From ASSOCIATED PRESS, June 14, 2010

Barataria teems with wildlife, including alligators, bullfrogs, bald eagles and migratory birds from the Caribbean and South America. There are even Louisiana black bears in the upper basin’s hardwood forests.

Before the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20, oyster and shrimp boats plowed through these productive bays as fishermen snapped up speckled trout and redfish within minutes of casting their lines.

Now it resembles an environmental war zone.

“The whole place is full of oil,” said fishing guide Dave Marino. “This is some of the best fishing in the whole region, and the oil’s coming in just wave after wave. It’s hard to stomach, it really is.”

Everything from crabbing to bait fishing is shutting down, and the anger on the bayou is palpable.

“It’s scary, you know, man,” marine mechanic Jimmy Howard said from his hurricane-battered fishing shack, a cigar stub stuffed in his mouth. “I see them doing what they can, you know. All the boats going out, all the boom. I’m hoping they can contain it.”

“We got little otter families that swim in and out, we got ’coons — all that good stuff, man,” Howard said. “It’s good for the kids out here. Keeps them off the streets. They swim, work on the boats, fish.”

Barataria has played a vital role in Louisiana history. It is where the pirate and Battle of New Orleans hero Jean Lafitte established his colony of Baratarians. The estuary was also the setting for “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. Like other wealthy 19th-century New Orleanians, Chopin spent summers on Grand Isle, to the bay’s south, and made the evocative island a focus of her work.

Barataria was a wild place back then. It was covered in virgin cypress trees, some believed to be thousands of years old. Throughout the marsh and forests, shrimp-processing towns and American-Indian settlements hummed with activity in the bay, which is at the heart of a 1.5 million-acre delta basin formed 3,000 years ago. But heavy erosion has been pushing the bay closer to the brink of collapse in recent years.

Since the damming of Bayou Lafourche in 1904 cut off a supply of fresh water and nutrients, Barataria has declined rapidly. About 500 square miles of marsh, mangrove, mudflats, sand ridges and cypress forest have been lost to the encroaching salt water of the Gulf. It’s a familiar story in coastal Louisiana, where 2,000 square miles of wetlands have been lost since the 1930s.

Scientists fear the oil may overwhelm Barataria’s remaining defenses, already stressed by erosion.

“There is no good estuary to spill oil in, but this estuary is particularly fragile,” said Mark Schexnayder, marine biologist with the Louisiana Sea Grant program, an affiliate of Louisiana State University

C.C. Lockwood, a wildlife photographer whose iconic images of the vanishing coast are a coffee-table feature, has been out in the slick capturing its impact.

“It looks to me like the roots (of marsh plants) are pretty much smothered and they will die at the edges,” Lockwood said. “I saw what I counted to be about 1,000 dead hermit crabs. I saw blue crabs with faces covered in oil.”

"I’m pissed — and you can print that,” said Donna Hollis, 39, hanging out in a tank-top and with a cigarette at Jimmy Howard’s camp in Wilkinson Canal.

She echoed Jefferson Parish council chairman John Young: “This is a battle. Oil’s our enemy right now. This is going to destroy the livelihoods of these people in south Louisiana.”

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