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A fisherman's plea to preserve the Louisiana bayou

Rocky Kistner

Posted June 27, 2010

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With his black lab and bird retriever at his side, Captain Ryan Lambert eased his fishing skiff out of Joshua’s Marina, just across the road from his home and fishing lodge in Buras, LA, once a thriving fishing community that was nearly wiped off the map during Katrina. The veteran fisherman, hunter and trapper pointed out in the direction of the massive levy guiding the Mississippi River to its unnatural connection to the Gulf.

“The day they built that levy was the day we started dying,” he said in his soft Louisiana drawl. “That levy is the biggest reason we’ve lost all our wetlands here, and without the wetlands, we can’t survive.”


As we cruised west into the sun-sparkled Bay Pomme D’Or and Bay Jocquin, Capt. Lambert pointed out the marshlands swallowed up by the Gulf over the past 30 years he’s been fishing in these rich waters. Hundreds, probably thousands, of houses or fishing camps once built on solid ground disappeared under the waves of encroaching salt water. Small canals dredged by oil and gas channels, once small straight trails through marshes rich with alligator, mink and otter, now were just one giant sea of water stretching as far as the eye could see towards the Gulf of Mexico. The oil and gas pipeline canals  just made it worse here. Virtually all of the areas here where he had once hunted were gone.

To Capt. Lambert, the oil disaster pales in comparison with what’s happened to the millions of acres lost over the past 50 years, victim of the Mississippi levies and the oil canals that crisscross the once fertile wetlands. Capt. Lambert says the BP oil coming in here is bad enough, but the real problem is that the marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate, and now there is no buffer between the violent storms of the sea and the communities that dot the delta. And nothing to stop the oil from coming further inland.

In 1950, more than 3 million acres of wetlands existed in the Mississippi delta; now that’s been cut by a third. Every half hour, another football field of wetlands disappears beneath the sea. The Mississippi levy, the pipeline canals, the impacts of a rising sea and global warming have all combined into a death spiral for the nourishing marshes here. That spells disaster for the fish and mammals who spawn here and travel throughout the Gulf—and the world.

Earlier in June, Capt. Lambert, a director of the Louisiana Charter Boat Association, testified before the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Ocean and Wildlife of the House Natural Resources Committee. Here’s part of what he had to say:

We don’t know for sure the long term affects that the dispersants and the millions of gallons of oil are going to have on our marshes. We do fear that after the visible oil is cleared and the news media is gone, we will be left to wait for mother nature to heal herself. We will be left without a way to make a living and our wetland will just wash away.

            It seems that many people refuse to see the big picture of what is really happening. While the loss of pelicans and turtles are devastating scenes, the real damage is going on inside the marshes. These marshes serve as the nursery to twenty percent of the nation’s commercial seafood. The eggs and larva of shrimp and crabs, the spat from oysters, as well as the young of many of our fish species are being killed by the millions. Without these young and the invertebrates that they feed on, Louisiana, and our way of life, will be changed forever. All life starts at the bottom of the food chain, this is where the most damage will occur when the oil and dispersants cover our waters.

But this may be just the beginning of a horrific holocaust to come. The Mississippi  delta is home to millions of migratory birds that flock down here in late summer  on their way south to winter, or fuel up for their long flight to Central and South America. By then, the water here may be poisoned and the food these birds so desperately need will disappear. It could be a migratory massacre. 

Captain Lambert is a duck hunter, and he knows that that means to birds throughout North America. This is what he told Congress::

The wetlands of the Gulf Coast comprise the most important wintering area for waterfowl and many other wetland dependant migratory birds in North America. Perhaps 50% of the ducks in the north migrate through or winter in Gulf Coast wetlands. The spill will devastate these birds, some of which are already threatened. Everyone has seen the photos of pelicans and other shore birds covered in oil. Imagine photos of millions of waterfowl and other beautiful birds,  covered in black. My other fear is that the small animals and invertebrates as well as many aquatic grasses will not be present. These are the fuel sources that take to many of these birds to Central America to winter. Plaquemines Parish where I make a living contains 14% of America’s wetlands. A major percentage of the Mississippi flyway waterfowl winters here. This is ground zero for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. If we lose 50% of these waterfowl, the economic impact will be felt from Alaska and Canada and throughout the central United States for many years.

The people of the bayou are dealing with problems of epic proportions. They know the way forward will be hard, and it will be years before life will ever resemble what it once was. As the marshes continue to disappear, each acre lost is another blow to the food chain that sustains the Gulf. It's a slow-motion cancer to the livelihood of those who live here, and to the birds, fish and mammals that rely on it for their survival.

What will we learn from this? Man and technology have done a good job of slowly destroying this essential life-nurturing area of the world. Maybe if we listen more to people like Captain Lambert we can preserve it. Because if we don’t change our environmentally destructive ways, we will have nothing left to preserve.


(All photos by NRDC, on Flickr.)

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