By Halle Parker, nola.com | The Times-Picayune | The Advocate
Acy Cooper grew up on the water, breathing in the air of Barataria Bay. As a third-generation shrimper, he feels the industry in his blood, and the beady-eyed, long-bodied crustaceans caught in his trawling nets represent his heritage as well as his livelihood.
“My dad taught me how to fish, and I taught my kids how to fish,” said Cooper. “All my friends, we’re a big tight-knit community that fishes together.”
Each year, the region’s short, multimillion-dollar brown shrimp season provides an early opportunity for Cooper and his friends to start paying down loans after the winter months and before white shrimp appear in August. But the freshwater infusion from Louisiana’s planned $2 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project could cripple chances to catch any “brownies” after it opens.
The project is a key piece of Louisiana’s 50-year, $50 billion effort to save the southern third of the state, yet even its staunchest advocates allow that it could drive brown shrimp and oysters, two Louisiana seafood staples, away from Barataria Bay once torrents of Mississippi River water start to pour into a brackish estuary that supplies one third of the state’s catch.
“The fishing industry doesn’t see the payoff here. It’s going to kill us more than it’s going to help anything,” said Cooper, president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. He said he feels as though the sparsely populated fishing communities of lower Plaquemines Parish, where the diversion is to be built, have been written off. “We have no oil field down here. If you take the moneymaker from down here, what are you going to do to these small communities?”
The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion aims to deliver replenishing mud to the Barataria Basin’s weakened wetlands and maintain a critical hurricane buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and the New Orleans area. In the process, however, it’s almost bound to cause the swift and immediate decline of seafood fisheries that are the lifeblood of residents in lower Plaquemines, according to the Army Corps of Engineers draft environmental impact statement on the project.
“No matter how you look at this, this is going to be a shock treatment to the system,” said Earl Melancon, a biologist for LSU SeaGrant. “Not only in terms of the flora and fauna in the estuaries, but for the people who live and work in the estuary, it’s going to be a shock treatment to them.”
In the long term, Melancon said, it’s possible that the basin’s freshwater biodiversity could surpass that of its current state. But at what cost? Crawfish and other freshwater species typically don’t fetch the same price as the oysters or shrimp.
Louisiana’s proposal for Mid-Barataria calls for spending part of a $305 million chunk of mitigation money to help fishers adapt to the disruption in their lives and their bank accounts.
But industry representatives doubt that the government’s analyses sufficiently assess the economic cost of such a drastic change to an industry that not only supplies seafood but also plays a part in marketing Louisiana to tourists.
“The freshwater species coming in are not going to be the cash crop that we’re giving up on,” said longtime oyster harvester Mitch Jurisich.
The Barataria Basin has seen the most land loss of Louisiana’s coast due mainly to the leveeing of the Mississippi River, hurricane damage and marshes weakened by oil and gas exploration. Since 1932, the basin has lost more than 430 square miles of what was once almost 1,500 square miles of land. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project would rebuild and nourish 27 square miles over 24 years, backers say.
Without it, the same species most affected by the diversion will continue their gradual decline as the basin’s water grows saltier, temperatures change and more marsh converts to open water, according to the Corps’ report:
- The number of shrimp, oysters and largemouth bass are expected to shrink over the next 30 years, and to drop steeply after 2050.
- Crabs will likely see a gradual loss, though to a lesser extent.
- Productive oyster habitat in Barataria Bay would eventually shift westward into areas newly converted into open water.
- By 2070, the eastern half of the project area would be rendered unsuitable for oysters, according to analyses by The Water Institute of the Gulf.
But vocal diversion opponents such as Jurisich have come to terms with the estuary’s slow downward spiral. Instead, they advocate for the state to rely solely on building land with pipelines carrying dredged sediment.
“We can work with the coast and the changing coast as long as it’s a slow-paced change,” said Jurisich, chair of Louisiana’s Oyster Task Force. “Even at the more rapid pace we’ve been at lately, we can still adapt. You can still time things in a fashion where we don’t lose production.”
The state already employs the pipeline tactic — dredging mud and pumping it miles away into wetland areas to build more land — in some parts of its coastal master plan. But the marsh created that way has a limited life span without a ready source of new sediment. Brian Lezina, chief of planning for the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the Mid-Barataria diversion would be key to extending the life of additional wetlands acreage added to the basin with dredging projects in the near future.
With the diversion, the fishing industry’s contraction will be much more sudden than many can stomach. The only habitat suitable for oysters would be pushed out toward the outskirts of the irregularly shaped basin, near the barrier islands where the hard bottoms needed for reefs might not exist. White shrimp, which are more tolerant of freshwater than their brown counterparts, could eventually see minor benefits from the diversion, although competition within the industry for the species would likely increase.
On the flip side, crabs might see few to no adverse effects. The same is predicted for redfish and speckled trout, the favored catch of recreational fishers and many charter boat operators. The Corps’ report suggests these might even find a small benefit from the habitat provided by newly rebuilt marsh for feeding.
While many effects of the diversion on fisheries were anticipated ahead of the Corps’ report, Melancon said the draft environmental impact statement gives fishers hard numbers to quantify their loss or gain and provides a jumping-off point for discussions between the commercial fishing industries and the state and federal agencies involved in the project.
“It is now in a factual form that they can put their arms around and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen to me’,” he said. “It gives the ability on both sides to say what kind of reality are we really looking at based on these numbers that are nothing more than a scale and can be interpreted based on the person who’s reading it at the time.”
The Corps’ environmental impact statement and the draft restoration plan written by the Louisiana Trustees Implementation Group’ detail initial plans for mitigating the collateral damage caused by the diversion. The trustee group oversees spending of $8 billion in BP Deepwater Horizon settlement money that will pay for the diversion.
The restoration plan promises hundreds of millions of mitigation dollars to communities that will be most harmed by the diversion. For the shrimp and oyster industries, it calls for paying to improve fishers’ gear, for training if they want to find a new line of work and for marketing assistance to increase dockside prices.
For oysters in particular, the plan outlines expanding programs already underway by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to open broodstock reefs to help seed depleted reefs, provide cultch for private leases and expand opportunities to grow oysters “off bottom” in cages.
Lezina said these mitigation offers are just a starting point based on meetings, focus groups and surveys conducted with hundreds of the basin’s fishers in 2019. He urged the public to specify assistance they would like to see when they submit comments on the Corps’ draft report.
“We want to do what’s best for the industry as put forth by the industry,” he said. “The whole goal here is to keep a viable commercial and recreational fishery in coastal Louisiana.”
Though lack of computer access and literacy creates a barrier for some fishers to participate in the virtual public meetings scheduled, Jurisich and Cooper said there are plans to help fishers submit comments.
But litigation to halt the diversion seems almost inevitable. George Ricks, who runs a charter fishing business out of Hopedale and leads the Save Louisiana Coalition, said there’s not enough money in the current diversion plan to pay for the harm it will cause to fishers.
“You can’t put a dollar value on culture and heritage,” he said. “Everything we’ve been saying all along, it’s true. The land-building capabilities — that’s uncertain. But now we’re certain about the impacts.”