Forlorn in the Bayou

Louisiana’s wetlands are resilient and have bounced back before. But no one knows how long this recovery will take.

This story appears in the October 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Where land meets the sea in the Mississippi River Delta, down at the bottom of the Louisiana boot, the term "coastline" doesn't really apply. There is no line. There are only the dashed pen strokes of the barrier islands, a dozen or so thin beachheads, and beyond, a porous system of open bays, canals, salt and brackish marshes, and freshwater swamps running inland for 25 to a hundred miles.

These are the Louisiana wetlands—12,355 square miles of one of the most productive ecosystems in North America. Mullet are so profuse they will literally jump into a fisherman's boat. Brown pelicans, tricolored herons, roseate spoonbills, great egrets, and blue-winged teal ducks call this place home.

One-third of the United States oyster and shrimp crop comes out of the waters along the Louisiana coast. And 98 percent of the fish, shrimps, crabs, and oysters harvested along that coast depend on habitat in and around the marshes of the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, an area that encompasses some four million acres south and west of New Orleans. Without these marshes, bordered by the Atchafalaya River on the west and the Mississippi on the east, there is no shrimp fishery or oyster harvest; neither are there reeds and grasses for nesting and migrating birds. Without the marshes, the rich human culture of the bayou has no foundation.

"These are working wetlands," Gay Gomez, an author and naturalist who grew up on the Louisiana coast, told me. "The land, the wildlife, and the people are inseparable here."

That's why, on day 22 of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson declared that the federal government was doing everything in its power to keep the oil from reaching the marshes.

But within a month of the explosion, the oil came to the marshes.

It didn't arrive in a simple, syrupy tide. It came in broken tendrils that slipped past the barrier islands and floated north on currents driven by a warm southern breeze. The oil changed shape as it moved. In one bay it speckled the water with brown turds and spit gobs. In another it coalesced into purplish rafts the size of small swimming pools. It was as thin as a rainbow sheen or as thick as carnival taffy.

Where it struck, it stuck. On Devils Point, a half-mile strip of saltwater marsh in Timbalier Bay, the oil glommed on to oyster grass stalks and mangrove leaves. In Redfish Bay, near the mouth of the Mississippi, it blackened the ankles of ten-foot-tall roseau cane stalks. On Barataria Bay's Queen Bess Island, one of North America's most productive bird rookeries, thick tide pools of oil hugged the shore and tarred the feathers of brown pelicans as they dived for food. Day after day, the wind pushed the oil farther into the marshes. Miles of absorbent and containment boom, often laid haphazardly and left unattended, could not stop it.

The marshes of Barataria-Terrebonne estuary are already the fastest disappearing lands on Earth. Starved of Mississippi River sediment and carved up by hundreds of oil- and gas-exploration canals, the marshes are subsiding into open water at a rate of 15 square miles a year. "This oil is hitting a coast that's already sick," said Kerry St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

The locavore movement has become trendy in America's hipper zip codes, but down here folks have been living off locally grown food for hundreds of years. Roadside diners serve up shrimp po'boys, French bread stuffed with the fried pride of Barataria Bay. Children bait strings with chicken necks to catch blue crabs. On Sundays friends and family gather for local crawfish or crabs boiled in huge pots over propane burners.

So in the early days of the spill a harvest fever swept coastal Louisiana. Mitch Jurisich and his younger brother, Frank, oyster farmers in the coastal town of Empire, hired local fishermen to dredge their oyster beds in an effort to harvest before the oil hit. That lasted only a few weeks, though. By early June the fever had broken. Oil forced the closure of almost all oyster and shrimp grounds along the coast. "My subcontractors are all gone now," Mitch Jurisich told me. "They can make twice as much money laying boom for BP, and I can't blame 'em. I thought about going all out, working 14-hour days," he said. "But then I decided that I wasn't going to let BP dictate how I lived my life. We're running like normal now."

Every morning in predawn darkness Jurisich would pilot his oyster barge up the Empire Channel toward the shallow estuary of Adams Bay. Jurisich's grandfather, a Croatian immigrant, first raked these beds in 1904. Today Mitch and Frank lease some 14,000 acres of oyster beds from the state of Louisiana.

On June 4 the Jurisiches' oyster beds were among the last ones open in Barataria Bay. The oil was roughly six miles away. "The way this wind's blowing, it'll keep moving the oil closer inland," Mitch predicted. "I expect a call this afternoon telling us this is it," meaning a shutdown. With BP's well discharging tens of thousands of barrels a day, there was no way of knowing whether such a closure would last days, weeks, or years. "It feels like we're farming with a monster coming at us," he said.

Two monsters, actually. There was more to fear than just oil.

"Usually by June the river falls, and the higher salinity signals the oysters to spit their larvae," Jurisich said. But that wasn't happening. Weeks earlier state officials had opened Mississippi River diversions to push fresh water through the estuary in a preemptive effort to keep the oil in the open Gulf. Oysters can tolerate wide variations in salinity, but they do need some salt in the water. If the fresh water kept flowing, Jurisich's oysters might die without ever encountering oil. In fact, by late July, low salinity levels had begun to kill oysters in Barataria Bay.

As we reached the oyster beds, Jurisich released two dredges, which looked like chain-link bags embedded with steel tines. "Just like dragging a garden rake," he said.

"Here they come!" Jurisich shouted, as clanging chains hauled up the steel dredges, and their contents clattered onto a metal sorting table. The air filled with plink, plink, like the sound of miners' hammers hitting rocks, as Jurisich's crewmen knocked the clumped oysters apart with culling hatchets. Fist-size oysters—the three-year-olds—went into burlap bags. Smaller ones were tossed overboard; those would take another year to reach market size.

In an average year the Jurisich brothers fill 50,000 burlap oyster sacks with about a hundred pounds of shell and meat each. "In a good year we'll do three times that," said Mitch. "And this was lining up to be a good year."

The sun rose over the horizon, casting a warm glow over the barge. Jurisich basked in the moment. "Not only do we like to work out here, we like to play out here too," he said. "If that oil puts us down, we'd lose a lot more than a livelihood. We'd lose our lifestyle."

Like most locals, Jurisich hates the oil but not the industry that spilled it. "Oyster farmers and oil and gas companies have been working here in the same place for more than 50 years. We maintain good relations. No more oil and gas due to this spill?" he asked, and paused. "No. I don't want that. Seafood alone couldn't support this state." He looked out at the water. "This will be a temporary bump in the road." There was a catch in his voice, a note of forced optimism. As if speaking the words would propel them toward truth.

That night a fresh pulse of oil hit Barataria Bay. A day later the oyster grounds were closed by the state health department. Jurisich Oysters LLC was out of business.

The history of oil spills in marshes is a litany of hard lessons learned.

Lesson: Removing oiled sediment from a saltwater marsh can completely destroy the marsh (spill from the Amoco Cadiz in France's Île Grande marsh, 1978). Lesson: Burning oil out of a marsh will not necessarily speed its recovery (pipeline spill in the marsh of Copano Bay, Texas, 1992). Lesson: Cutting—and in the process trampling—heavily oiled vegetation may kill off the marsh much faster than the oil itself would (Esso Bayway spill near Port Neches, Texas, 1979).

One more lesson: The phrase "after Katrina" may have a lot of meanings in coastal Louisiana, but during the oil spill it became shorthand for an awareness that the federal government would not ride to the rescue. If Louisianans wanted the marshes protected, they would have to do it themselves.

Mark Kulp is one of them. Kulp is an associate professor of geology at the University of New Orleans who specializes in coastal lands. When the Deepwater Horizon spill occurred, he was recruited as a team leader by BP's Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT) division. Every day at 6 a.m. six SCAT teams would fan out across the Louisiana coast in airboats to investigate reports of oiled shoreline and recommend cleanup protocols. On the morning of June 12 Kulp was in the SCAT room in the Houma Incident Command Center. A wildlife biologist, an environmental-quality specialist, and an archaeologist rounded out his team for the day.

"I want to check out a spot in Timbalier Bay that was heavily oiled two weeks ago," Kulp said. He showed me pictures of dark reddish-brown oil gunked on the shore at Devils Point. "It was pretty badly hit."

Kulp had recommended no radical cleaning. "We had them run some boom to suck oil from the water along the shoreline. I'm hoping the tidal action will slowly wash the oil out of the vegetation and into the boom." The material in the boom is hydrophobic (water repellent) and oleophilic (oil absorbent). So when oil touches it, the boom won't let it go.

Three hours later an airboat dropped us off on Devils Point. We sloshed ashore at high tide. Nearly the entire peninsula was under six inches of water. "What I want to know is if the oil is moving into the interior, or if it's staying on the fringe," Kulp said.

It took about five minutes to make our way across. The news was mostly good. Some mangrove leaves had gone black, and some areas of glasswort were still lightly oiled. But the tidal and wave action had worked like a washing machine agitator, lifting the oil off the plants and moving it onto the white boom, which was now black with oil.

Back at SCAT headquarters that evening, division leader Ed Owens brought his 45-member staff together for a half-hour debriefing. Owens, a bigger-than-life British man with a rakish eye patch, came up with the SCAT concept while working on the Exxon Valdez response. Each SCAT team reported on what it had found.

"Team two. Mark?"

Kulp nutshelled it. "We went back to Devils Point, where we're seeing progressive flushing with the tides. If we keep changing out the dirty boom, I think the high tides will continue doing us some good."

One of the other SCAT teams reported that the beach on East Grand Terre, a barrier island, was still full of pooled oil. "This is the poster child right now," the team leader said. "We need to get a cleanup team out there."

Owens sighed. In this complex cleanup operation, the assignment of cleanup crews was beyond his purview. He could recommend, but he could not dispatch. That was the job of the operations division.

"We'll go to ops tonight and tell them they've got to get on this now," Owens said, clearly frustrated at the thought of yet another delay. As the meeting broke up, he turned to his deputy. "We're going to have to kick some ass on that Grand Terre situation." Whether that would result in any action, nobody could say.

Kulp stayed late filling out a report on Devils Point. It might get filed in the bureaucratic ether. Or somehow it might make a difference in the recovery of Timbalier Bay. On his computer screen he called up a photo of the oil from his original visit to Devils Point. "It certainly looks a lot less scary than when I saw it two weeks ago," he said. "With what we saw today, I do feel a sense of hope."

Cleaning oil from the marshes is one thing. Cleaning the wildlife that lives in the marshes is another thing entirely. BP had hired dozens of wildlife professionals to collect oiled birds and turtles, but they were often overwhelmed by the workload. That led to frustration and sometimes improvisation.

Every morning in early June the Plaquemines Parish coastal director, P. J. Hahn, met a fishing guide named Dave Marino at 4:45 in the refinery town of Port Sulphur, and the two of them went oil scouting. Hahn needed to know where the oil was washing up. Marino, his business wrecked by oil, was happy to have the work.

On the morning of June 5 Hahn said to Marino, "We better take a look at Queen Bess."

A 97-acre clump of oyster grass and shell midden, Queen Bess Island is one of the fragile masterpieces of Barataria Bay. When Louisiana reintroduced the extirpated brown pelican in the late 1960s, Queen Bess became a primary nesting ground. In 1990 coastal-restoration advocates ringed the island with a rock barrier to keep it from sinking into the bay. Hundreds of brown pelicans, Forster's terns, and laughing gulls now flock there annually to nest.

Hahn glassed the shore as we approached the island. "It's getting worse over here," he said.

Dozens of brown pelicans stood at the shoreline, mustered like sailors at the rails, preening oil from their feathers. Some held their oil-heavy wings outstretched trying to dry them in the breeze. Others batted their wings in the water, trying to wash the feathers clean.

Marino spotted something caught near shore. Hahn waded in. It was a brown pelican, trapped in a tide pool of oil six inches deep. The bird was so oil soaked it could barely move. Oil dripped from its bill. The blink of its eye was the only sign that it was alive.

"I'll call it in," said Marino.

An hour and a half passed. Then two. Heat came into the morning. Help did not arrive.

Oiled birds don't commonly die from poisoning. They usually freeze or fry. Oil destroys the insulative properties of their feathers, and they die of hypothermia when the nighttime temperature drops or of hyperthermia when the daytime sun overheats their bodies. This bird was being slowly cooked.

Hahn began to boil.

For weeks officials like Hahn and his boss, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser—the Fiorello La Guardia of the Louisiana coast—had complained bitterly about the chaotic operation run by BP and the federal government. Thousands of National Guard troops, Coast Guard reservists, and specialized contractors had overrun small fishing towns along the coast, but in all the hullabaloo few seemed able or willing to actually skim much oil from the water. Federal officials seemed more concerned with enforcing bureaucratic regulations than with cleaning up the spill. As far as Hahn was concerned, it was time to put the damn bird in the damn boat.

"I'm taking that bird in myself," he said.

"You're going to get us in trouble, P. J.," said Marino. The rule on the water was: Don't touch the birds.

"I can't leave her here. She's gonna die."

Hahn raised the bird by its wing—not the best way to do it, but he had to take a chance—held its beak, and wrapped its body in a plastic bag to calm it. We carried it to Marino's boat; the sopping, sun-heated bird felt as warm as fresh bread. Twenty minutes later it was on its way to the bird rehabilitation center south of Empire.

It went like that all that day and the next. In Bay Jimmy heavy oil browned the marsh grass. On an unnamed island in Bay Ronquille hermit crabs scuttled through oil and died.

In Bay Long the oil pooled in floating rafts so thick that two menhaden minnows leaped out of the water, got stuck in the thick crude, and died. Hahn dialed his office. "Donna?" he said. "I'm in Bay Long, and it's heavy here. We just passed some skimmer boats over by Cat Island. We need to move them over here. North 29 degrees, 19.92 minutes. West 89 degrees, 49.45 minutes. You get that?"

Donna Frederick, the parish's emergency operations center supervisor, repeated the coordinates.

"Great. We gotta move those skimmers. There's a whole bunch about to hit the marsh here."

Eventually Hahn and Marino turned back to port. They were exhausted. Marino's boat bore the brown smudges of oiled-water duty. As they entered Myrtle Grove Marina, two Coast Guard officers in an airboat pulled alongside.

"Y'all been out playing in the oil?" one of the officers asked. He glared at Marino and Hahn like a vice principal nabbing a couple of truant eighth graders.

"You need to go back and get deconned," the officer said, indicating Marino's stained hull. He pointed to a decontamination station where men wearing Tyvek suits held pressure washers. "You're polluting the water with that oil," he added, without a trace of irony.

In the small towns along Highway 23 and Highway 1, the two main arteries into the marsh country, restaurants replaced "Shrimp Boil" signs with "Crawfish Boil." (Crawfish thrive in freshwater swamps, which have been largely untainted by oil and will remain so unless a huge storm surge sweeps it in.) Handmade protest signs sprouted in front yards. "Damn BP. God Bless America," read one. Another was perched on an old toilet. "BP Headquarters," it said.

At the Shrimp Lot in Westwego, where locals buy buckets of fresh-caught seafood from two dozen vendors, a normally packed parking lot sat empty. "Got no shrimp, and nobody to buy 'em if we did," one vendor told me. "Everybody's scared to eat it." Indeed, it is not known how the toxic blend of oil and dispersants will affect marsh life.

Along the docks and marinas there was fear that the oil would kill everything it touched. Certainly it would taint the marshes for years to come. A rumor circulated that the beach on Alaska's Prince William Sound still held subsurface crude oil more than 20 years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. It didn't help that the Alaska rumor happened to be true.

Still, over the past 30 years we've learned a lot about the effects of spilled oil in various environments. And the research indicates that in the battle against the Deepwater Horizon oil, the Louisiana marshes have more than a puncher's chance.

In fact, Barataria Bay has a number of things going for it. The Louisiana sweet crude glopping up its shores has been heavily weathered, which means some of its toxic components—the benzene, toluene, and naphthalene that can kill most organisms—have degraded on the journey from the oil's offshore source. Because weathered crude is highly viscous, it's less likely to penetrate deep into marsh sediments. That's good, because surface heat, sunshine, and water will help break down some components of the oil, as will oil-eating bacteria.

"A lot of people want to add microbes to clean up this spill," the national estuary program's Kerry St. Pé told me. "But we have plenty of natural microbes that consume oil already in our marshes."

Those natural microbes are abundant partly because smaller spills are so common here. Although a Deepwater Horizon-size spill—about 200 million gallons until the flow was stopped in mid-July, most of which had not drifted into the marshes—is unprecedented in U.S. waters, over the past 40 years an annual average of 383,040 gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from pipelines, platforms, and wells. An additional 41 million gallons discharge every year from natural seeps in the Gulf seafloor.

St. Pé's ancestors settled here in 1760. As a boy, he hid in muskrat dens during games of hide-and-seek. Before he hired on at Barataria-Terrebonne, St. Pé spent 25 years managing oil spill cleanups for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. Few in the state of Louisiana have seen more oil in the marshes.

After a day's survey of Barataria Bay, St. Pé seemed more relieved than alarmed. "I've had oil spills far more ecologically challenging than this one," he said. In 1997 a broken pipeline in Timbalier Bay spilled nearly 6,500 barrels of crude oil directly into the marshes. "That spill covered everything in sight," St. Pé recalled. Yet within five months more than 4,100 acres of lightly oiled marshland had recovered. Of the 162 acres that had been heavily oiled, 161.72 acres recovered within two years.

"Crude oil isn't a systemic herbicide" like Roundup, St. Pé explained. It may kill the tops of plants like oyster grass or roseau cane by smothering the stalks. "But the root system won't die," he said, "and within weeks the rhizomes in the sediment will send up new shoots."

Black mangroves are at greater risk, because oil may block their pneumatophores, the long fingerlike breathing tubes that provide oxygen to the tree's underwater roots. "Even a light sheen can clog those tubes," St. Pé said as we scrutinized a number of empty pelican nests in the mangroves on Cat Island. Their oiled residents had been caught and taken to the rehab center the previous day.

As we drifted along the shore of Cat Island, gobs of oil floated by, fraying at the edges in the 97-degree heat. "It's degrading pretty quickly," said St. Pé. "The hot Louisiana sun can induce a lot of photooxidation and evaporation," he said. "And oil-consuming bacteria will multiply quickly now, because there's lots of food."

For the marshes of the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, the damage done by the oil spill didn't compare with the damage done by decades of canal cutting and sediment starvation, St. Pé said. "The ecological effects of this will gradually subside. But the socioeconomic impacts will be devastating. No oysters, at least in the near future. No crabbing. No fishing. No seafood to restaurants. Nobody buying ice or bait or marine supplies. Lost paychecks with the offshore-drilling moratorium. Those impacts will stay for a long time."

One evening in early June I drove down to the Grand Isle shore and watched coin-size gobs of oil wash up in the surf. The beach at Grand Isle has become famous for visits from President Barack Obama and cleanup crews scooping oil out of sand. But on this night it was deserted. The only sound was a light whoosh from the waves.

Then I spotted two birds flying low from the east along the tide line. It took me a moment to identify them. Oystercatchers? No. By their motion they revealed themselves. They were black skimmers, which catch small fish by dipping their lower bills into the top three inches of water as they fly. As they flew past, I watched them skim water poxed with oil. I wanted to wave them away, flash a warning sign, scare them off. But it was too late. They continued down the shore, skimming and skimming and skimming.