Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building Maritime Forests and Barrier Islands in Port Fourchon and Grand Isle; More Oil Spill Clean-up on Elmer's Island

By Paul C. Focazio, Web Content Manager, New York Sea Grant

Our travels in our final days found us south of New Orleans, in the region around Port Fourchon (pictured above in 1), Louisiana’s southernmost port. This sea port shows significant petroleum industry traffic from offshore Gulf oil platforms and drilling rigs as well as the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port pipeline. With primary service markets in domestic deepwater oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production in the Gulf of Mexico, Fourchon has earned the tagline "The Gulf's Energy Connection" for several reasons: (a) it has over 600 oil platforms within a 40-mile radius, (b) it's port currently services over 90% of the Gulf's deepwater oil production, and (c) this area furnishes 16-18% of the U.S. oil supply.

Just a short boat ride from the Port Fourchon Marina (2, above) is where educators from New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) and New York Sea Grant (NYSG) partook in an all-day volunteer activity. The group, under guidance from staff at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP), docked at the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge (3-5, above) for a habitat restoration planting.

It was 2001 when BTNEP, along with the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, began their partnership with other organizations to re-establish this ridge. Why? While Louisiana’s unparalleled coastal wetlands loss has dire consequences for many species of fish and wildlife, the same can be said for ridges like this one. These ridge habitats are extremely important to many animals including the millions of migrating birds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in the spring each year on their way back to their breeding grounds in the eastern United States and Canada.

And while the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge appears rather bare in a vegetative sense, thanks to volunteer efforts like this one (during which around 800 new trees were planted), "it will hopefully one day be a full maritime forest," said Mel Landry, BTNEP's Public Involvement Coordinator.

Between 1986 and 2008 alone, nearly 120,000 acres in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System have benefited from habitat projects made possible through several state and federal programs, including BTNEP. Most of these projects have focused on habitats with high rates of loss, such as the barrier islands, interior marshes, bays, and bayou shorelines of Plaquemines, Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. Port Fourchon, where the maritime forest ridge in this volunteer effort is located, is on the southern tip of Louisiana's Lafourche parish.

Salt Matrimony Vine was the small tree/shrub of choice for the restoration effort, as it's a native evergreen with a high success rate in most soils that is also tolerant of salt spray and drought conditions. Other plants found on the ridge, including marsh hay, bitter panicum and Spartina patens, exhibit similar endurance qualities.

Prior to the planting, BTNEP's Plant Materials Coordinator, Matt Benoit, showed the educators how to prepare and plant the salt matrimony vine (pictured 6-8, above). After holes are drilled deep enough to support the roots, the plant's soil needs some loosening up before placing the shrub in the ground, filling in the dirt around it firmly, and adding a fertilizer tablet before patting down the dirt one final time.

The NYSMEA and NYSG educators helped drill the holes and plant the shrubs during the full day of restoration efforts on the Port Fourchon Maritime Forest Ridge (pictured 9-13, above; 14-15, below).

At the end of the day, after all of the nearly 800 salt matrimony vine trees were planted, BTNEP staff brought the NYSMEA and NYSG educators back to the Port Fourchon Marina for a much needed and well-deserved reprieve (pictured 16, above).

A good example of what these educators helped work towards in Port Fourchon - a more robust and, hopefully one day, full maritime forest ridge - is what you'll see on Grand Isle, a barrier island in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish located at the mouth of Barataria Bay where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout its history, Grand Isle has been repeatedly pummeled by hurricanes. On average, Grand Isle has been affected by tropical storms or hurricanes every 2.68 years since 1877, with hurricane direct hits on average every 7.88 years.

In 1860, a 6-foot storm surge and great winds resulted in the total devastation of the island. More recently, 2005's Hurricane Katrina hit Grand Isle very hard, destroying or damaging homes and camps along the entire island. Katrina's surge reached 5 ft at Grand Isle, with large waves severely damaging the only bridge linking Grand Isle to the mainland.

Luckily, a news report published less than two days after Katrina hit falsely noted that the area had been completely destroyed. Had this been true, it would have been even more devestating for the the skinny, seven-mile Grand Isle, Louisiana’s biggest and only inhabited barrier island that is also the only barrier island large enough to support “chenier” or live oak forests (pictured in 17, above). The forests, back barrier marshes, and sandy beaches of Grand Isle are considered one of the premiere birding destinations in North America.

In the spring, a redmulberry tree with ripe fruits (pictured in 18-19, above) may be filled with a kaleidoscope of migrating birds, including blood-red Summer Tanagers, velvety-red Scarlet Tanagers, orange Baltimore Orioles, burnt-orange Orchard Orioles,deep-blue Indigo Buntings, and multi-hued Painted Buntings.

"It's the diversity of habitat that makes this place so rich and unique," said BTNEP's Landry. In addition to live oak, this mature maritime forest (pictured in 20, below) is home to a variety of other plant species, including wax myrtle, black mangroves, native palm (palmeto, pictured in 21, below), and an array of salt tolerant grasses (22).

One of three types of mangrove plants that grow in the United States, black mangroves encompass a large community in both the Grand Isle and Port Fourchon areas. This community is at the northernmost edge of the black mangrove’s natural geographic range, so, because of cold stress, it only reaches shrub-size.

Overall this area's wetlands, including the mangroves, help to protect Louisiana's ports and infrastructure. They serve a vital purpose, both as physical habitat and nursery grounds for a wide variety of marine organisms as well as storm buffers by reducing wind and wave action in shallow shoreline areas. But, over the years, their presence in the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System (BTES) has declined, mostly due to subsidence, a complex process in which marsh sediments compact and sink under their own weight. Historically, annual floods over the banks of the Mississippi River provided freshwater and sediment inputs to BTES marshes and kept them above water. But, the levees that have been constructed to protect shoreline communities from these floods are also preventing water and sediment from reaching BTES marshes.

Over time, the process of subsidence drowns coastal marshes, causing chemical changes in wetland soils which, eventually, kill marsh vegetation. Without plant roots to hold it together, marsh soil breaks us and is carried away by wave action. The end result? Marsh is converted to open water. This additional volume of water causes an increase in the tidal prism, forcing passes to enlarge and reducing the lengths of barrier islands such as Grand Isle, which protect interior marshes from wave action and hurricanes.

BTNEP suggests that one of the most effective ways to supplement the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary System is via a pipeline delivery that would go over the levees and pump in the sediment needed to replenish and build up BTES's wetlands.

It is volunteer and education efforts such as the one on display between staff of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program and the Long Island Sound Study (pictured in 23, below) - two of the U.S.'s 28 estuaries deemed critically in peril and nationally significant - that make programs like these a success and the ideas therein thrive.

For more on the region, check out Louisiana Sea Grant's "Grand Isle Diaries," a sound scape that documents Grand Isle’s rich history and culture, as well as its environmental importance.

As a result of April 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Elmer’s Island is currently closed to public fishing and recreation. Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge (EIWR), owned and maintained by the state of Louisiana, is a 230-acre tract of barrier beachfront located directly across Caminada Pass from Grand Isle on the southwestern tip of Jefferson Parish.

Following clearance from state police officials (who are on premises and constantly patrolling to be assured the area remains locked down during this period of testing) and under the supervision of Julia Lightener, Fisheries Biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and EIWR Manager, we were able to see some of the reasons for the closure.

Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge is where egrets and herons visit, terns, gulls and pelicans nest and plovers will winter. In it's sands you'll see ghost crabs scurrying about (pictured in 28, above), as well as beach grasses such as bitter panicum, Spartina patens and "Ghost Rider" purple bluestem, a native warm-season, perennial bunch grass well adapted to the deep South (pictured in 24-26, above).

Also in the sands of EIWR, though, are broken up tar balls, an incredibly degraded state of oil that has washed ashore (pictured in 29-31, below).

Crews are out on the beaches, raking up the tar balls (32). There are also machines nicknamed "sandbonis" that remove the top half-inch of the sand and sifts out possible tar and oil (33).

According to a recent report by Daily Comet, one of the area's news sources, LDWF Secretary Robert Barham, said there’s “new oil” showing up on its beaches, including tar balls and a submerged mat” of crude. Federal law gives the state final say over when an area is determined “cleaned,” Barham said. “In that regard, I have some security,” Barham said. “But BP has sent some subtle messages that it wants to take the position that nature should takes its course at this point and that they have basically cleaned everything up. They think they’re on the backside of this. But we’re going to hold them accountable.”

Mike Utsler, COO of British Petroleum’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, told Daily Comet that the seasonal low tide of winter was expected to reveal tar mats near shore and tar balls are still washing up in “limited areas” across the coast. Utsler, who has hosted Facebook question sessions and is serving as the public face for BP’s clean up, contends BP’s efforts won’t stop when a beach is cleaned.

“BP is going to be in the communities of the Gulf Coast for the long-term, and part of our continuing job will be to closely monitor the shoreline for any signs of tarred material,” he said. “We have specially trained reconnaissance teams that patrol the shoreline looking for any signs of tar balls, and if we find any, we will still have locally based response teams and equipment ready to rapidly clean the area.” Initially, he said BP’s goal was to have all of the Gulf Coast’s “amenity beaches” cleaned up in time for spring break.

For updates on the status of Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge, visit it's LDWF Web page.

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