As Sunday’s four-year anniversary of the BP oil spill approaches, environmental groups headed out into one of the areas most heavily oiled in the disaster. There, they looked at what effects that oil could be having on wetlands, and inspected the latest damage from coastal erosion, ongoing before and after the spill.
It takes about a half-hour on John Stubbs’ 22-foot fishing boat to get from the Myrtle Grove Marina in Plaquemines Parish to Bay Jimmy in Barataria Bay.
BP’s oil traveled 60 miles to shore and crept another 15 miles into the bay, covering mangrove trees and delicate wetland plants in black sludge.
Months after the spill, officials set up booming, automated air guns to scare birds off from landing on oily habitats.
The guns are gone now, and oil isn’t visible from the surface. But research under the federal Natural Resource Damage Assessment is still being done on what long-term damage was inflicted on the environment.
Findings are confidential until the BP court case is resolved in federal court.
Four years later, officials from the Audubon Society and other environmental groups took a close-up look at how wildlife and the marshes that sustain it seem to be holding up.
Douglas Meffert is executive director of Audubon Louisiana. As the boat bobbed on the Bay Jimmy shoreline, he scanned the horizon.
“This is spring so we should be seeing migratory birds," Meffert said. "We should be seeing some nesting birds in the area and we’re not seeing any right now. I actually don’t see a bird in sight in our vision right now.”
There’s no sign of oil. How that relates to the absence of birds is under scientific review.
The wetlands in Barataria Bay are washing away so quickly that the GPS system Stubbs uses on his charter fishing trips often indicates he’s on land.
But it’s open water.
Stubbs says his charter fishing customers are curious about coastal erosion.
“And we ride by and we show them," Stubbs said. "So we do get the word out by taking the out-of-town people around and showing them.”
He said out-of-towners are absolutely surprised by what they see.
“Especially, like, when they look at our GPSs and we show then that we’re running across what used to be an island and there’s nothing there," he added. "They’re amazed.”
They also ask about the oil spill, he says. “They ask questions and they want to know what’s going on, or if the area we’re fishing was impacted.”
He tells them about what the oil looked like when it lapped up against the shoreline, and what damage started before the spill — when erosion was already washing away the land.
The tour next encountered a blip of an island much smaller than the lobster-claw shape that appeared on the GPS. On the good side, it was covered in birds.
Now, the Audubon’s Douglas Meffert is smiling.
“We’re looking at both the sandy beach habitat. We’re looking at the marsh habitat, and very importantly on the left side here we’re looking at black mangrove, which is great for habitat for pelicans for their nesting," Meffert said. "It’s very protective. We’re seeing brown pelicans, a healthy number of brown pelicans here. We’re in the middle of a bay. The birds like these habitats, but the reason that they’re safe on a habitat like this, even though it’s degrading at the moment, is that raccoons and other mammals can’t swim out here and eat the eggs of the young.”
That smile disappears when Meffert gets his first look at Cat Island, about a quarter-mile away.
“It’s quite bleak on this island right now," he said." Looking at the mangrove stumps, it looks like there was a fire here.”
The few mangroves that were evident two years ago are now black, dead stumps. Salt water has cut the island in half.
There was, in fact, a bird on the island, but it was dead. Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative, says a neck wound was evidence it was likely killed by a bird predator. The Forster’s tern had no place to hide on the barren island.
On the way back to Myrtle Grove, a stop was made at the marsh-creation project at Lake Hermitage to inspect the progress. About 550 acres of land have been built by pumping in dredge material from the Mississippi River.
The $38 million endeavor is expected to be finished by the end of the summer. It’s hoped that vegetation will naturally cover what now looks like a barren field, and wildlife will return and flourish.
There are no plans for extensive restoration efforts like that pumping project to save Cat Island. Plaquemines Parish officials are working with the state and the federal Department of the Interior to come up with solutions as quickly as possible.
Support for coastal reporting on WWNO comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Kabacoff Family Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.