On a bright spring morning, P.J. Hahn is walking through a graveyard in the middle of Barataria Bay.
It’s a 30-yard patch of mud and sand bristling with bare, dead mangrove brush surrounded by miles of open water. Each mangrove is a tombstone marking the death of a nesting site used for decades by brown pelicans and roseate spoonbills on what was once the string of wetland pearls that made up the Cat Islands chain.
But in 2010 the oil spewing from BP’s Deepwater Horizon would send them all to an early grave.
“Four years ago we had more than five acres of habitat and there were tens of thousands of birds nesting on these islands,” said Hahn, director of coastal zone management for Plaquemines Parish. “Then the oil came in and coated the mangrove roots, and two years later the islands started going.
“I don’t know where those birds are nesting now – but they can’t do it here any more.”
The post-BP story of the brown pelican, Louisiana’s official bird, is the perfect metaphor for the crisis confronting the state’s coast.
Before the Deepwater Horizon blew out on April 20, 2010, brown pelicans were living the good life in southeast Louisiana as one of the great wildlife comeback stories. In 1963 not a single brown pelican could be found in the state due to impacts from the insectiside DDT. The comeback started in 1968 when the state began transplanting birds from Florida, and populations began to soar after DDT was banned in 1972. Thanks to the abundant food in one of the world’s most productive fisheries, by 2010 their numbers were thought to be near historic levels, as high of 85,000.*
Proof of the comeback could be seen each spring in the string of marsh and mangrove islands scattered across the eastern reaches of Barataria Bay, including those called the Cat Islands. The pelicans would build their nests above tidal flows in the branches or crowns of the mangrove stands. By late April parents were guarding youngsters. Other species joined them, including roseate spoonbills and herons.
Other important nesting sites, located elsewhere on the southeast Louisiana coast, have not suffered as much.
But as with the human settlements on Louisiana’s sinking delta, that picture of avian health concealed an encroaching disaster. The islands were getting smaller each year as the waves from rising seas eroded their shorelines. What had been 30 acres of nesting sites 20 years ago was down to five by 2010.
“They were shrinking, but we would have had another 10 good years, and there would always have been mangroves on them until the end,” said Hahn. “But that 10 years turned to two when the oil came in.”
For several months after the spill, the mangroves looked healthy. The following spring brought signs of an accelerating calamity. The mangroves on the edges of the islands — the ones most heavily oiled — were dying. By the end of that summer, plants deeper into the flats were turning brown. By the second spring few were left alive.
Without the mangrove roots to hold the soil together, waves quickly eroded the islands. Three have washed away completely, including the original Cat Island; two others are now short, narrow sand bars with just months to live. Only one still has enough mangroves and elevation to host nesters — and that population is down to a few hundred.
To visit a part of southeast Louisiana that teemed with tens of thousands of nesting brown pelicans just four years ago is to tour a wildlife ghost town. The few remaining patches of sand are naked except for the dead mangroves, their twisted branches rising into the air like arms desperately waving for help.
Hahn would like to provide that help. Shortly after the spill he developed a $5 million plan to keep pelicans in this part of the state. He’s $1.5 million short.
“The idea is to barge in river sand to the same areas and rebuild the islands,” he said. “The structure left under the water gives us a good base to build on, and we could replant with mangroves and grasses. Then we would surround the islands with riprap to protect them from the wave erosion.”
Hahn was able to get a $1 million grant from Shell Oil Company. He scraped together other funding to push his total to $3.5 million, but his quest for money from the official spill restoration sources has drawn a blank. In the meantime, his plans remain just plans.
“This was ground zero for the spill’s impacts on wildlife so you would think maybe BP would come through, but that hasn’t happened,” he said. “My concern is that the longer we wait, the less of that structure we’ll have left to build on. It’ll just wash away.
“We have a chance to keep wildlife that’s been a part of this place for generations, but it’s slipping away.”
The tough going hasn’t stopped Hahn’s crusade. He carries a 20-minute PowerPoint he shows to anyone who will watch. But he worries time is running out.
The immediate impact of the lost nesting sites is likely to be felt more by humans than the birds, said Melanie Driscoll, the National Audubon Society’s director of bird conservation for the Gulf Coast.
“They will look for other places to nest in the area, and then move to other areas, and even other states,” she said. “And losing them in a habitat where so much time, money and energy was spent in rebuilding their populations for the last 40 years is a tragedy in itself.”
*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited an estimate of 100,000 brown pelicans now in Louisiana. (April 11) Further, a previous version of the story incorrectly said that DDT was a fertilizer. (April 14)