Oil Spill Threatens Louisiana's Fragile Wetlands

Breton Island is slowly disappearing but is still home to thousands of birds. i i

hide captionLouisiana's Breton Island is slowly disappearing. Much of it was submerged during Hurricane Katrina five years ago, but the island is still a nesting place for thousands of birds, and it remains a hurricane barrier.

Cheryl Corley/NPR
Breton Island is slowly disappearing but is still home to thousands of birds.

Louisiana's Breton Island is slowly disappearing. Much of it was submerged during Hurricane Katrina five years ago, but the island is still a nesting place for thousands of birds, and it remains a hurricane barrier.

Cheryl Corley/NPR

The oil spill is a tense day-by-day waiting game for environmentalists in Louisiana tracking how badly the state's wetlands and a small set of barrier islands, the first line of defense against hurricanes, are affected. Their continued erosion is considered just as catastrophic as the spill.

Breton Island is among the stretches of land in the Gulf that make up one of the country's oldest National Wildlife Refuges. Wildlife officials make frequent checks of the land that remains after Hurricane Katrina and other storms turned much of the area into open water.

The reported oil sheen nearby may affect thousands of migratory birds that use the isolated spot as a home and breeding ground.

On a recent boat trip out to Breton, Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation in Louisiana for the National Audubon Society, says the fear is that the birds will ingest oil or have their feathers soiled by it.

Because birds like the brown pelican are at the beginning or in the middle of the nesting cycle, the oil spill couldn't happen at a worse time.

"It puts them into a situation where they are more tied to the ground," Driscoll said. "They have a nest, which is an investment, and they are less likely if conditions get bad to just get up and move to another area."

So far, two oiled birds — one found in the Gulf, the other found on another island — have been cleaned and relocated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. BP, which operated the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast, has placed orange booms around Breton to try to prevent any oiling.

Randy Lanctot, executive director of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, says more needs to be done.

"It does make sense that we'd take special care of a place like this because you can see how much land is out here," Lanctot said. "It's just a tiny little piece, and these birds — they need this habitat."

But the shoreline has been fading fast.

Ben Webb of the National Wildlife Federation says it's much the same for the state's marshes.

Louisiana is home to about 40 percent of the nation's wetlands — and the bulk of coastal wetland loss occurs in the state.

"These wetlands have been sacrificed ... for the national good," Webb said, "be it navigation, be it oil and gas exploration, be it fisheries."

Every year during the past decade, Louisiana has lost about 24 square miles of wetlands — about the size of one football field every 38 minutes.

Efforts are under way to restore the area.

About 80 students from Belle Chasse Middle School were part of one of the most recent coastal restoration projects. They planted marsh grass at a sandy beach area in Jesuit Bend, La., about 20 miles south of New Orleans.

Shane Foss of the state Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration says it's a first-of-its-kind program. Sediment from the Mississippi River, which is about five miles away, along with about 300 million cubic yards of sand, has been put down. The plant roots hold it all together.

The state partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency and oil company Conoco Phillips.

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