Posted by: coastlinesproject | July 9, 2011

Shrimping in Louisiana.

Shrimpin’ the Full Moon Tide.

It is May 13, 2006. There is no wind, there are no sounds, save for the quiet droning of a shrimper motoring down Barataria Bay. A string of pelicans glide on motionless wings against a pastel sunset.
The shrimper has been watching the moon for the past few days. Tonight the moon will be working in collusion with the sun to draw the spring tide out through the quarter mile pass between Grand Isle and Grand Terre.
The shrimper has motored past row upon row of dying oak trees and strings of telephone poles standing in two feet of water. Only a few months before they had been on dry land. This was not because of Katrina, just the normal sinking of land from lack of sediments, and 10,000 miles of canals dug in the marsh to lay oil and gas pipelines. The channels start out only 35 feet wide but in less than a decade they erode to more than 200 feet across. Then they allow salt water to sluice in and out of the estuary easily undermining peat and tattering the marsh. Everyone can remember seeing portions of their back lots slowly slumping into the ever expanding bay.
This entire coast loses 25 square miles of marsh every year, the equivalent of losing an entire football field every three minutes. That was before Katrina tore out an additional 118 square miles, which was only a trifle compared to the 2,000 square miles of marshlands lost since the levees were built after the 1927 floods. That is the equivalent of losing a state the size of Delaware in less than eighty years.
Now the shrimper sees other boats converging on the gap between the islands. They stagger out from as far away as Lafitte, Duloc, and Leeville all hit hard but recovering from Katrina. The pass is already cheek by jowl with shrimpers. Giant booms hold their nets outstretched. The sound of the engines is deafening. The shrimpers have to keep their engines running at full throttle just to hold themselves steady against the outgoing tide. They have lined up in a “V” formation facing into the onrushing water. The boats are so concentrated they can be easily seen on Google Earth.
The shrimper breaks through the line and comes up from the rear to jostle for position. Men sporting wrap around sunglasses and colorful bandanas give him wide berth. He has been known to knock competing fishermen off their feet with the single throw of a well-aimed shackle. The great great grandfathers of some of these same fishermen probably joined Jean Lafitte’s pirates during the Battle of New Orleans.
But tonight their prey are brown shrimp, Farfante paneus aztecus, that have been waiting for darkness to ride the tide back out into the Gulf of Mexico. Since April they have grown as much as an inch every week in the LaFourche estuary. Now they are ready to return to the Gulf to spawn and lay their eggs. (47)
Overhead a fight breaks out. The shrimper has been trying to maintain his position in one of the rips where the current is strongest and the fishing is best. But one of the younger captains maneuvers too close and has to be firmly rammed to be convinced this is not his territory. Water hoses are aimed but there is no time for retaliation. The moon is now high and boats on all sides are hauling in hundreds of pounds of snapping, popping, spiny-skinned shrimp.
At about three in the morning the tide turns and scores of boats have to zigzag and scramble to avoid being swept back into the estuary where the shrimping season has yet to open. A few more fights break out but the fishing continues. A neighboring boat is famous for having stayed out all night in a hurricane so the crew could continue fishing, a minor Cajun cluster fuck is not going to deter them.
Just before dawn the shrimp stop moving and the shrimpers steam back toward Leeville. It has been a good night. Many of the boats caught and cleaned close to 2,000 pounds of shrimp. It has been that way ever since the levees were built in the 1930’s. Every year the marsh eroded it meant 25 more square miles of detritus, 25 more square miles of bacteria, and 25 more square miles of fecal pellets; all abundant food for the record catches of brown shrimp, white shrimp, pink shrimp, oysters, and blue crabs.
This year the catch is particularly good because Katrina has left that much more dead offal in the water. But she has also destroyed so many boats that there are more fish to go around. It has often been said that World Wars and hurricanes make the best fisheries management tools; remove fishing pressure off a fast-growing fecund little species like shrimp and they will rebound to historic heights in a single season.
But how long can this artificial bonanza continue? In a matter of decades Louisiana will run out of marsh and the extended boom will come to a crashing end. A major food source will be lost and a way of life will cease to exist.
However, there is a plan that may solve both the many interrelated problems facing the tattered Louisiana coast as well as provide long term protection to New Orleans. It is the Third Delta Conveyance Channel, a project to divert one third of the Mississippi south of New Orleans to rebuild her marshes.
The project has much to recommend it. When it was originally proposed in 2000 it called for the Mississippi to do all the heavy work. The Army Corps of Engineers would simply divert the river at Donaldson, Louisiana, then dig two 200 foot wide guidance channels down either side of the LaFourche Bayou. Within a few decades the river would erode the banks of the original guidance channels into two half mile wide rivers that would in turn, deliver enough sediment into Terrebone and Barataria Bays to build two 75 square mile subdeltas. During the next fifty years these deltas would double in size to protect New Orleans, bring back the marshes, and eliminate the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by run-off fertilizer flowing down the Mississippi from the midwest.
Since Katrina, planners have been proposing that the Army Corps of Engineers lend the Mississippi a hand by siphoning sediment off the bottom of the river and pumping it in pipelines directly and more quickly to the coast.

A smaller diversion project in nearby Caernarvon, Louisiana has been building up twelve and a half square miles of new marsh every year since 1981. Since every mile of marsh dampens down storm surge by as much as a foot, in as little as 5 years the Third Delta Conveyance Channel could build up enough marsh to prevent the storm surge that flooded New Orleans in 2005. In twenty years time the project has the potential to protect the city from from storm surges generated by a Category 5 hurricane. That time frame is less than would be required to obtain the necessary permissions and build levees high enough to protect against a Category 5 hurricane. Plus, the Third Delta project would cost $15 billion dollars less.
But there are always confounding problems with irreversible mistakes. The levees that the army corps of Engineers constructed after the 1927 floods not only channeled the Mississippi out into the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, but also reduced the amount of sediment carried in the river from bank erosion. Dams and soil conservation programs did the rest, effectively cutting off the flow of top soil from the midwest and course sand from the Rockies.
The bottom line may be that the Mississippi no longer carries enough sediment to rebuild the marshes faster than the land is subsiding and sea levels are rising. Together the two processes cause the sea level along the Louisiana coast to rise more than two feet every fifty years. This may mean that the Third Delta Diversion Project will not work and that the 300 mile long Cajun Coast that supplies over a quarter of all the seafood caught in the United States will be lost in the next half century. But for now we must move on to Florida that has it’s own problems with hurricanes and sea level rise.

Excerpt from “Just Seconds From the Ocean,” available at local bookstores and at a discount to Coastlines Project supporters.

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