Atchafalaya Basin post-Gustav prognosis
Not Off the Hook
Hurricane Gustav smothered our beloved oysters and killed off thousands of fish, but the real impact on Louisiana’s lakes, rivers and bayous is just beginning.
By Jeremy Alford
No body of water suffered more in Gustav’s wake than the Atchafalaya Basin. Extensive fish kills have already been reported from all over the basin by biologists with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries — and two more weeks of study are expected before a final report is issued.
Whether salt, fresh or brackish, water has long played a critical role in the history and development of Louisiana. For centuries, local inhabitants have defined our culture ” and that includes mudbugs, catfish, redfish, oysters, Cajuns, Anglos, Africans and Creoles. But lately, every hurricane that washes over us from the Gulf of Mexico takes with it a piece of our historical fabric. Gustav, the seventh bastard child of the current Atlantic hurricane season, was no exception.
No body of water, however, suffered more in Gustav’s wake than the Atchafalaya Basin. Stretching from the rolling prairies of Concordia Parish all the way to the coastline just below Morgan City, the Atchafalaya is the largest swamp in the United States. It covers 150 miles from north to south and 20 miles in width ” a massive area that Gustav mangled. Extensive fish kills (dead fish floating in what is probably water lacking adequate levels of oxygen) have already been reported from all over the basin by biologists with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWLF) ” and two more weeks of study are expected before a final report is issued.
In some areas, like Henderson and Bayou Courtableau, the stench from dead fish has become so strong that residents are heading for higher and lower ground, whichever smells best. Many have learned that just because the storm is over doesn’t mean all the damage is done. According to a DWLF report released last week, biologists ‘anticipate that some fish will continue dying in the near future while waters in the basin continue to recede bringing [oxygen-depleted] water conditions south.”
To put the crisis into perspective, the Atchafalaya Basin may have suffered a greater loss of freshwater resources from Gustav than it did following either hurricanes Katrina or Rita. It’s actually more along the lines of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. For anglers who have been fishing the basin for a generation or more, they know this is just another chapter in its long life. Prior to Andrew, the basin was a bass mecca, drawing fishermen from all over the country. But the storm wiped out the bass population.
Adding insult to injury, recent assessments from earlier this year suggest that the Atchafalaya Basin was just getting back on its feet and showing signs of recovery ” then along came Gustav. Now it could be reverting back to its depleted state. ‘It has taken the Atchafalaya Basin several years to recover,” says DWLF press secretary Bo Boehringer. ‘Andrew really snuffed out the bass.”
That’s among the reasons why Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state’s congressional delegation want the federal government to declare a commercial fishery failure in Louisiana in the wake of Gustav. This designation is authorized under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and would allow immediate federal assistance to be sent to Louisiana. ‘As the largest producer of domestic seafood for our nation in the lower 48 states, restoration of Louisiana’s fisheries, fisheries infrastructure and habitat is critical to our nation’s economy as well as to the families in our state who have made a living in the fishing industry, some for generations,” the delegation wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez.
Louisiana’s fisheries supply nearly one-third of the fish harvested in the lower 48 states (by weight) and a harvest valued in excess of $2.85 billion a year. The industry suffered a devastating hit during the 2005 hurricane season, and disaster relief money from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is still in the process of being distributed to commercial fishermen.
For crawfish and catfish alone, Gustav’s impact could reach $46 million, based on initial estimates by the Louisiana State University AgCenter. Similarly, the shrimp industry could take a $22 million hit, and oyster fishermen could see a $45 million loss.
In fairly short order, it could mean a number of people losing their jobs and livelihoods. ‘This disaster assistance we are requesting would help them repair their boats, replace equipment, and keep their businesses going,” says U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Napoleonville Democrat. ‘Commercial fishing is not just a major sector of south Louisiana’s economy, it is part of our way of life along the coast, and we must help our fishermen and women weather this storm.”
Harry Blanchet, a biologist with the DWLF marine fisheries division, says the impact to coastal areas is still being determined, but that a number of minor fish kills have been reported. That trend should pick up in coming weeks and continue as long as the rains keep falling. ‘There’s probably going to be more fish kills in areas where lots of freshwater are discharged,” Blanchet says. ‘There will be water with little or no oxygen moving downstream in the coming weeks, like on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, that the fish will not be able to avoid.”
Recent assessments from earlier this year suggest that the Atchafalaya Basin was just getting back on its feet and showing signs of recovery after Hurricane Andrew wiped out the bass polulation in 1992 — and then along came Gustav. Now it could be reverting back to its depleted state.
Although no fatalities have been reported as a result of Gustav, Blanchet says the storm created at least 40 oil spills. In the vicinity of Lake Fortuna, the Audubon Institute was called upon to treat 20 oiled pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird. Then there’s infrastructure damage, which is widespread, although not devastating. For instance, the majority of the fishing and boating docks along Lake Pontchartrain in eastern New Orleans, from Chef Pass to Rigolets, have sustained moderate damage. Blanchet says many commercial fishermen are returning to work already because they had the foresight to move their boats and equipment away from Gustav’s impact zone.
For now, it’s a waiting game. Only time will tell the total impact of Gustav on Louisiana’s famed fisheries. As in the past, the state’s waterways and neighboring Gulf of Mexico will play an important role in the development of Louisiana’s future. For now, let’s hope the latest and next chapters offer more good news than bad.