Cajuns Hope for Revival of Battered Marshes

Burt Tietje

Burt Tietje runs a crawfish farm in Roanoke, La., that was just outside the zone of Hurricane Rita's saltwater damage. Anne Hawke, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anne Hawke, NPR
Diane Borden-Billiot

Diane Borden-Billiot, outreach coordinator for the Southwest Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex, surveys a chemical tank that Hurricane Rita dislodged and floated into the refuge. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR
Gator guts

Ricky Varet skins an alligator at Vermilion Gator Farms in Abbeville, La., where alligator habitat has been disrupted by Hurricane Rita. Anne Hawke, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anne Hawke, NPR
Hydrogen sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide bubbles on the surface of a marsh in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. It forms from the tons of decaying material submerged beneath the surface. Anne Hawke, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anne Hawke, NPR
A file photo of a black-necked stilt.

A file photo of a black-necked stilt. The species is starting to make a comeback in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, despite the detritus that still litters the marshes there. J.A. Spendelow/USGS hide caption

itoggle caption J.A. Spendelow/USGS

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita not only destroyed human habitats, they laid waste to animal habitats as well. The storms altered the map of Louisiana's southern wetlands, and the wild things are only now slowly starting to return.

On Sept. 24, 2005, Hurricane Rita blew in and washed the community of Holly Beach, in southwestern Louisiana, into the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, a 160-square-mile expanse of marsh that borders Texas.

Around the refuge, the village detritus is still easy to see. The tidal surge floated an 18-wheeler into the canal, where it sank into a bog, along with great piles of uprooted marsh. Diane Borden-Billiot, a biologist at the refuge, says the canal has become "a nice large cauldron of stew — a nice marsh stew." The smell is intensely sulfurous, like pungent, rotten eggs.

The hurricane redrew the map of this wetland. It plugged canals and opened new lakes. The wild things that lived here are temporarily gone. The humid air is nearly empty, save the mosquitoes — those are as plentiful as dust motes — and a garrulous shorebird called a black-necked stilt.

"If this were a nice, healthy marsh this time of year, you should hear a lot of bird life, rails, occasional gators bellowing," Borden-Billiot says. Still, the sounds of the stilt are a positive sign, she says.

"When we came out here several months ago, you didn't hear a peep, not a bird, not an insect, nothing," she says. "So that is actually a great sign. That's something out here that's able to survive."

Vermilion Gator Farms

The storms were particularly hard on alligators. Locals say they seldom see the familiar snout and eyes poking out of the murky waters these days.

There is one place where they're still numerous, though — the Vermilion Gator Farms in Abbeville, La. Rita inundated Vermilion, washing away 3,000 squirming, baby reptiles. Though the Sagrera family that owns Vermilion raises its own gators, the farm nevertheless depends on natural habitat. They collect eggs from the wild, and in return, release 14 percent of the hatchlings back into the marsh.

Kevin Sagrera says he's not sure how the gators will fare this year.

"The saltwater is all over the marsh now, and the salinity levels are extremely high," he says. "We've had very little rain to come in and dilute that marsh. What's happening is the gators can't take high salinity. So we're not sure what nesting is going to be this year."

Slaughtering a Pricey Watchband

A gator sanctuary Vermilion is not.

On this day, more than a thousand animals will be slaughtered.

In the skinning room, sturdy men in coveralls first inflate the four-foot-long alligator carcasses as if they were balloons.

Then the creatures are flayed on stainless-steel tables anchored to a concrete floor slick with gator blood. The tender tail meat is stripped out to be sold to restaurants. Then the hide is chilled, sterilized, inspected, packed and shipped to Singapore, where a company turns them into $200 watchbands.

A hunter himself, Cajun skinner Ricky Veret knows the marsh is in distress, but he's confident it will heal itself.

"Alligators are like Cajuns — they bounce back pretty quick," Veret says. "So hopefully, in a couple of years, we'll have it back."

Positive Consequences of the Storms

Preliminary estimates show the twin typhoons destroyed as much as 200 square miles of wetlands in a state that can ill afford more deterioration. Louisiana was already losing an area the size of a football field to the Gulf of Mexico every 35 minutes.

But hurricanes are part of the natural order, and they can have some positive effects, says Guthrie Perry, longtime manager of the state-run Rockefeller Refuge.

"Some of these areas and marshes had grown up, and they were completely covered and filled in," Perry says. "Waterfowl need a certain amount of pond area. And so the storm did kill some of the plants and open it back up."

What's more, sediment carried inland by the storm waters added several inches of topsoil in places. And the hurricane tide brought a profusion of seafood farther inland.

Seafood a Plenty

Some locals report that the shrimp catch is now plentiful. As for the state's other favorite crustacean — the crawfish — how it fared depends on where you look.

Along the Gulf, the storm surge swept 35 miles inland and ruined one-quarter to one-third of the state's crawfish crop. Drought has prevented rain from flushing out the saltwater.

But those fishing for crawfish outside the saline zone got lucky.

"I've had a very good year," says Burt Tietje, a crawfish farmer in Roanoke, La. "There have been a lot of producers knocked out because of the storm. And I'm kind of like Forrest Gump — I'm the last man standing. So I'm reaping the benefits of high demand and a plentiful product."

Prices for live crawfish, which have nearly doubled this year, certainly add to Tietje's good cheer. But there's more to this business than the bottom line.

"Early morning in the crawfish pond, the temperature is cooler," Tietje says. "The birds are waking up. The ducks are flying. It's a very peaceful place."

Biologists are confident the wildlife will eventually return to the marshes and bayous of South Louisiana. Natives like Tietje can't imagine living anywhere else, either.

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