Revolution #202, May 30, 2010

The Oil Spill's Threat to the Gulf Wetlands

This report was written before WWL news in New Orleans reported on May 19 that thick black oil washed into the marshes in the South Pass region of the Mississippi River Delta at a place called Pass á Loutre. This is probably the largest impact on land that has been seen so far since the spill began. WWL said that there was a half-mile area of marsh grass filled with oil and six to eight other areas just like it. The news is having a devastating, upsetting impact and causing real anger among fishermen who fish in these waters. One fisherman told me today that this area is the richest fishery he has ever seen and that the spill will have huge impacts on all the species that use the marsh as their spawning areas. He said he didn't think it would come to this, that somehow the worst wouldn't happen—but now it has. There is real anger that everything needed to be done to protect the marshes has not been done, and there is potential in this developing sentiment to unleash more opposition to this ongoing crime.

The threat to ecosystems from the oil spill in the Gulf is multi-leveled and multi-layered. What is shaping up is truly an almost immeasurable crime.

The ecosystems of the Gulf are varied, rich, and multi-faceted–truly a wonder of the natural world. They also form the basis for the lives, culture, and existence for many millions of people in this region and beyond.

At least 40% of the country's wetlands are in Louisiana. One of the largest wetland areas is the Mississippi River Delta, which was created over millennia by floods from the river that deposited sediments, creating a delta region of a half million acres. These are interwoven ecosystems of freshwater bayous, bays, channels, and marshlands—areas where there is a mixing of salt water from the Gulf with river water (the combination is called "brackish" water) in channels, bays and estuaries; and then saltwater estuaries; and then the various marine ecosystems of the open Gulf. In the wetlands near shore, there is a back and forth between the salt and fresh water with tide flow and currents from the river. Beautiful and amazingly rich diversity of fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals move back and forth in the environments they survive best in.

Larry Everest and I took a boat trip around some of this area during our reporting trip to the Gulf. We traveled out from Venice, through Red Pass in the Mississippi, and then moved into smaller channels that crisscross each other throughout this area, and then out into more open bays—six miles out all told. Recently oil has been found in some places in the delta, and the threat of a much more massive contamination is extremely real.

The captain of the boat, Brent Ballay, pointed out areas that used to be land but now are submerged by sea water due to the loss of land, because the river is confined and no longer building up new wetlands from over-spilling its banks and depositing new sediments. Channels have been dredged to open the area up for shipping and extraction and transport of oil. This is also contributing to the loss of wetlands, as they settle and disappear beneath the sea water. Katrina and other hurricanes have taken their toll. Another increasing cause of wetland disappearance, I am quite sure, is sea level rise due to melting of the ice caps from global warming.

According to an article in National Geographic in 2004, "Since 1930, 1,900 square miles of coastal wetlands—a swath nearly the size of Delaware—have vanished beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Despite nearly half a billion dollars spent over the past decade to stem the tide, the state continues to lose about 25 square miles of land each year, roughly one acre every 33 minutes." These wetlands are not only extremely biodiverse, they also form a natural barrier protecting the Gulf coast, including New Orleans, from hurricane winds and storm surges. So their disappearance is one reason Katrina was so devastating.

Brent showed us the channels where he catches bass in fresh water, the areas where redfish live, and further out where speckled trout can be found. In the fresh and brackish water areas, marshland sediments are held together by a plant the fishermen call "roso-cane"—a tall reed-like plant some eight feet high or more—that grows thick so you can't push through it. In the salt water areas, sea grass predominates. These plants "cement" the marshland sediments and hold them together. Without them the wetlands disappear and, as Brent put it, "The Gulf would be at our doorstep." And in the sediments, algae and other microorganisms live that, along with the grasses, form the base of these ecosystems.

These marshlands also have many other plants, cypress trees, a tree the fishermen called hackberry, flowering plants of orange and purple, thistles, and beautiful white spider plants. And throughout, these wetlands are filled with incredible bird life: snowy egrets, herons, red-winged blackbirds, ibis with their prominent long beaks of orange and brown, gulls and terns, brown pelicans sitting on old pilings and occasionally taking to flight. Huge man-o-war (frigate birds) soar in the wind. They have a seven-foot wing span and occasionally sail down to grab fish off the water. These birds have been recorded in flight for 4 days at a time. In one fresh water channel, we came across a small alligator.

These bays and estuaries are also home to oysters and crabs and other crustaceans. Many of the larger species, including juvenile fish, worms, crabs and other crustaceans, depend on the microalgae that live in the sediments to survive. It's been estimated that 97% of all the marine species in the Gulf depend on the estuaries at some point in their life cycles. So there is a close dependence and back and forth between life in the ocean and coastal wetlands.

Imagine these wetlands filled with oil. Scientists say the grasses are pretty resilient and if just their leaves or stems are coated, they can put out new shoots. But if the oil covers and penetrates to their roots, they die and the sediments supporting this whole ecosystem can begin to be washed away. If the oil kills the algae, the food is gone for many other organisms. If some of these organisms are poisoned and die off, the algae can grow all out of control. Oil in these marshes will cause untold death to many of these wonderful species, and could cause devastation to the whole ecosystem. The oil could last for decades, mixed into the mud.

The thought of all these threats to the wetlands is sickening and shows again that this system is not capable of caring for the earth and its ecosystems.

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