As efforts to try to cap the oil well that has poured millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico faltered Saturday, we took a tour of the vast ecosystem along Louisiana coast for a first hand look at what is at stake. The Louisiana coastline is a complex network of rivers, bays, marsh and bayou that sustains abundant and diverse plant and animal life.
Several miles off the Eastern Louisiana coast these barrier islands are all that stand between treasured wetland habitats and the giant oil slick adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.
The nesting grounds for pelicans, gulls and other water foul, they rise less than 30 centimeters above sea level. Matt Rota, an environmentalist with The Gulf Restoration Network says if the oil makes landfall here, it will spell trouble for the entire coast. “Well the Louisiana wetlands are just an amazing ecosystem. They are very productive, have lots of different critters, and they all depend on each other,” he said.
To learn what is at stake, we chartered a boat to take us into the wetlands East of the Mississippi River. Our guide, P.J. Blaize has been fishing these waters since he was a young boy. As we cross the river, he takes us through a lock he says has been closed since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “From what I am hearing, the governor general gave the order to open up the locks to push the fresh water out. That is one of our allies is the fresh water holding the oil out in the open water as opposed to coming into the isle marshes and stuff,” he said.
Heavy rains and flooding in states up river in the past week, are exerting enormous pressure downstream. Officials want to use that pressure to flush fresh water out into the Gulf of Mexico to keep the oil offshore.
“You see the river is a tree line, and all this is basically fresh-water marsh,” said Blaize.
Just on the other side of the lock are natural waterways that wind through freshwater marsh.
The marsh is home to a vast array of plants, fish, reptiles like the North American Alligator, and mammals. “We have a variety of species. We have mink, we have nutria, we have muskrat, coyote, dear, wild pig,” said Blaize.
Matt Rota says if oil made its way into the marsh, a lot of the plant and animal life would not survive. “Well, if the oil did get into the interior of the wetlands it could be very devastating. You could have oil getting on the plants, which could cause them, at the very least, to be stressed if not die. And then you have issues such as birds and mammals coated with oil,” he said.
Further east we reach brackish water. It is here the rich oyster and crab fishing grounds are found. We stop at the mouth of an inlet where an oil boom should have been set. But could find none. “Over time oil does dissipate and can get broken down from bacteria and other organisms in the water, but still they are putting certain dispersants on the oil that makes it sink down to the bottom,” he said.
The fear is that the oil would taint the bottom dwelling shellfish for decades. “It could be taken up by crustaceans like shrimp crabs, things like that which are the base of the food chain and that could be passed up to fish and then mammals and the toxins could be concentrated and that could be harmful to animals that feed on these smaller organisms,” he said.
Farther out, we reach the bird nesting grounds on the barrier islands. Off in the distance, reminders of how prominent the oil industry is here. In the past oil and ecology have struck a delicate balance in Louisiana, but as the massive slick drifts closer to the coast that could be coming to an end.
Jeff Swicord is with VOA News