These surreal jarred fish tell an urgent story of extinction

A biologist's unusual “fish bunker” of preserved aquatic life shows how humanity has pushed some species to their doom.

Collection manager Justin Mann cradles an Atlantic sturgeon, Acipenser oxyrinchus. Dams that block breeding grounds threaten the species. Researchers value the collection because it reveals how environmental changes affect fish.

It is a horror movie director’s dream of a natural history collection. You find it by driving 10 miles southeast of New Orleans, to a piece of land that is part swamp, part forest, on a bend in the Mississippi River, down a dirt track named Wild Boar Road. Alligators and water moccasins live in the tangled woods to the left. On the right stands ammunition bunker number A3, its flanks heavily bermed against the danger of explosion, its loading dock cracked and skewed forward by the more reliable detriments of time.

There are 26 such bunkers, widely distributed around the roughly 400-acre property, most of them abandoned. During World War II, U.S. Navy ships stopped here to pick up artillery shells before heading out to sea. Later the Central Intelligence Agency trained Cuban guerrillas on the property for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Tulane University owns the place now, and the visitors tend to be biologists, drawn here by the nearly eight million dead fish housed in bunkers A3 and A15. (Another bunker nearby holds the University of Louisiana Monroe’s fish collection.)

More from this issue

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Sea turtles are surviving—despite us
What we lose when animals go extinct

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