The BP Oil Spill: What We Could Lose

  • Roger Di Silvestro
What happens to wildlife habitat in Louisiana doesn’t stay in Louisiana. It affects birders and waterfowl hunters across the nation as well as the palates of seafood aficionados. Southern Louisiana harbors some of the richest and most important U.S. wetlands, providing temporary or permanent habitat for 20 percent of North America’s ducks and geese, 72 percent of the continent’s forest-dwelling migrant birds and 1.5 million alligators. Myriad muskrats, river otters, raccoons, mink and other mammals. Louisiana is a fishing capital, too, attracting about 1.1 million anglers yearly and providing some 1.4 billion pounds of fish and shellfish yearly to the nation’s seafood industry. These valuable resources are now in jeopardy as oil spewing from British Petroleum’s Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico moves inexorably toward Louisiana shores. Here’s a look at what’s at risk.

The Bird Connection
Few species more strongly link the fate of Louisiana wetlands to the larger world than do migratory birds. Nearly all migratory land birds summering in the eastern United States, as well as many western species, pass through Louisiana during migration. One radar scan tallied 2.6 million birds arriving in the southwest corner of the state at one time after a flight across the Gulf of Mexico. During bad weather, 80 percent of spring migrants preparing to cross the gulf seek refuge in the region south of Lake Charles. 
Oil flowing into this region may have less effect on migratory birds in general than on those birds, such as various egret species, that nest there. However, migrants, especially those that feed on fish, may find their food sources contaminated. Birds that feed on rodents may find prey has decreased. Nesting birds risk becoming oiled from contact with polluted waters and also risk bringing contaminated food to their nestlings.

Land Animals 
 About 1.5 million wild alligators roam Louisiana, says Noel Kinler, the state’s alligator project manager. They inhabit primarily the freshwater marshes of the southern portion of the state. If wetlands become oiled, alligators can suffer from direct contamination and also from the toxic effects of eating prey that has been oiled.
Louisiana also provides important habitat for large numbers of raccoons, muskrats, opossums and other furred species. Like alligators, furbearers can become covered with oil or can die from toxic ingestion of oil, including oil licked off of fur.

Fisheries in Jeopardy
Recreational angling is big business in Louisiana, contributing $1.5 billion to the state’s economy, according to a report of the American Sportfishing Association. The state also supports a vast commercial seafood industry, producing about 20 percent of the total commercial fisheries harvest in the lower 48 states, with a dockside value in excess of $350 million.
A drastic downturn in the harvest of the majority of the most valued species of fish and shellfish is one of the risks posed by the oil spill, if these creatures become contaminated. Estuary species that could decline include red drum, gulf menhaden, southern flounder, brown shrimp and blue crabs. American oysters, especially sensitive to chemical changes in water, are worth as much as $295 million annually to the state in total economic impact.

The Second Threat
The B-P oil spill comes on top of already drastic problems jeopardizing Louisiana wildlife habitat. The state is losing 25 square miles of coastal wetlands every year, including vast reaches of vital wildlife habitat. “If land loss continues at the present pace, a valuable part of the nation’s wildlife heritage will disappear,” says Jerome Ringo, a Louisianan and former chairman of the NWF board of directors. 
About 328,000 acres of Louisiana marshes and swamps could be lost by 2050 if the problem is ignored, according to the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, released in November 2004 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This loss would decrease “the quantity and quality of habitats for amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds,” according to the report. Fishery and oyster resources will decline, as will recreational opportunities, as marshes convert to open water. Hurricane levees would be at greater risk than they are presently. Overall, coastal Louisiana would suffer a net loss of 13 percent of its acreage. 
 The wetlands loss is caused by changes that European settlers began making almost as soon as they moved into the Mississippi Delta and started to change its riparian plumbing. The first levees—walls built along river banks to contain high water—were built in the colonial era, but levee building along the Mississippi did not swing into high gear until major floods in 1882 and 1927. As more levees went up, the river no longer could deposit marsh-building silt at its mouth, so marshlands began eroding away. Then, in the 1920s, the oil industry began to punch navigation and pipeline canals into the marshes. Today, some 9,300 miles of canals crisscross Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, allowing the Gulf of Mexico to flood the silt-starved freshwater marshes with salt water. 
Some 80 to 90 percent of annual U.S. coastal wetlands loss occurs in Louisiana, which since the 1930s has lost more than 1.2 million acres of coastal marsh. The loss of marshland threatens furbearers, alligators, waterfowl, wading birds and a host of fish and shellfish species. Already beleaguered by this threat, these species and their habitat now face a compounded danger as oil oozes across the waves into their wounded homeland.

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