20100609-cover-0101Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Essay by Donald W. Davis
Photos by Cheryl Gerber

Perception may become reality as oil percolates in our wetlands.


[Editor’s Note: Don Davis is a retired geography professor at LSU who has studied Louisiana’s wetlands and its people for more than 40 years. His new book, Washed Away: The Invisible Peoples of Louisiana’s Wetlands ($49.50, UL Lafayette Press), is an engaging account of the diverse ethnic groups who have fished, farmed, hunted and drilled this complex ecosystem for more than 200 years. The following essay is an exclusive for The Independent Weekly.]

Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are perhaps best described as a sea of grass, a landscape that cannot make up its mind whether it is going to be land or water. As a result, this topographic unit is only slightly above sea level. The landscape is so flat there are U.S. Geological Survey topographic sheets that do not have any contours greater than 5 feet. Superimposed on this geographic province are its people.

To the marsh dweller, this landscape is home and has been a settlement site for more than 200 years. In some cases, up to five generations have lived within five to 10 miles of their ancestors’ original settlement. To these people there is nothing better than sitting on the porch enjoying a sunrise and/or sunset and relaxing in “their” marsh. These wetland pioneers were self-sufficient, accustomed to hardships, fun-loving, gregarious, cooperative and affable. They earned their living from a fundamental understanding and relationship with the land, and the sea, and developed deep local attachments to their immediate realities. They accepted the difficulties of living at sea level as an annoyance and not something that would prompt them to leave their beloved marsh.

20100609-cover-0102
A dead gannet washes up onshore on Elmer's Island.

This near featureless landscape is the domicile to a broad cross-section of ethnic groups. Even so, the coastal lowlands are a landscape in which humans seem tiny and inconsequential. Their cultivated plots and settlements within this near sea-level green-fringe lands could be washed away in the blink of an eye. Hurricanes were the key annoyance. Even with this unannounced disruption to their lives, what evolved was a vast assortment of wetland-oriented communities founded by numerous ethnic minorities, representing a kaleidoscope of cultures, which mingled and fused together as marsh dwellers.

Unlike their Eastern Seaboard counterparts, who consciously avoided wetlands as settlement sites, early Louisianans considered it undesirable and unsafe to start a community where there were not adequate marshlands. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, pioneers were settling and exploiting the marshlands and adjudicating private land claims. These “wastelands” inhabitants often lived in villages or dwellings perched upon stilts over “semi-liquid soil” or on unsurveyed land that was open to settlement because of lingering confusion over titles and boundaries.

20100609-cover-0103
An aerial view of Pass a Loutre in southern
Plaquemines Parish reveals a sheen of heavy oil.

To many of the state’s inhabitants, Louisiana’s working coast was an afterthought — little more than a surveyor’s nightmare. To these non-coastal settlers, the lasting achievements of humankind could only be established inland, beyond what was perceived as the danger zone. Consequently, for nearly all of Louisiana’s history, the marshes can be best described as “the forgotten landscape,” more a public nuisance that required corrective measures than a valuable environment. For more than 250 years Louisiana’s wetlands were considered a geographic province that should be converted to a more functional, purposeful landscape.

Well before governments decided that these lowlands should be made into something better, this forgotten land was settled in parts of North America, Europe, and other regions of the world. Following in the wake of Indian occupancy, European, African, and Pacific-rim immigrants (English, Portuguese, Norwegians, Swedes, Poles, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Danes, Americans, Scots, Malay, Philippine, Chinese, Italian, Cajun, Isleños, Blacks, Austrian/ Yugoslavian, German, Greek, Irish, Latin American, and American Indian) left their own distinct imprint on the marshes.

20100609-cover-0104
Children on vacation from Rosedale walk
down Grand Isle's oil-contaminated beach.

It is clear that a surprisingly large and ethnically diverse population has historically lived in Louisiana’s wetlands that came to be labeled a “No Man’s Land,” in essence a forgotten human landscape. These resident trapper-hunter-fisher-folk collectively give a human face to the coastal lowlands that have traditionally been studied almost exclusively for their distinctive flora and fauna. Ultimately, each wetlands group has imprinted its respective territory with its own unique cultural values, in the process giving Louisiana’s near sea-level marshes its “personality.”

Most of these settlers were boat-minded people, who were a census taker’s nightmare. Even so, their communities are part of the marshlands’ human story. In such inaccessible, remote, and self-sufficient villages, everyone knew everybody else; there were no secrets in these close-knit communities. In these villages the family patriarch was born into a French-speaking family. He may have learned Spanish from his wife and picked up Slavic from “fishing” oysters. He sold his harvest to Italians and knew enough of their language to ensure he was getting fair market value for his bivalves. In addition, he understood enough Filipino to converse with the workers on one of the wetland’s shrimp-drying platforms, and by necessity learned English through assimilation.

This human mosaic was joined together by the eight economies: Agriculture (indigo, rice, cotton, sugarcane and cattle); fishing (shrimp, oysters and crab); trapping (muskrat, nutria and alligator); commercial hunting; government service (military, lighthouse keeper and refuge caretaker); industry (lumber, oil, natural gas, sulfur and menhaden processing); recreation (hunting, fishing and eco-tourism); and a combination of any one or all of these categories. The importance of each element of this octagon is directly related to the cultural practices and customs of each ethnic minority. Consequently, the cultural heritage and morphology of the marsh dwellers’ natural canvas has continuously changed and evolved, offering fresh challenges; nevertheless, the marsh became home to a highly diverse group of individuals making a living from the area’s renewable and nonrenewable resources.

20100609-cover-0105
Before the spill: Anthony Kap, his mother Brenda Kap
and his stepfather Hong Hean in southern Plaquemines Parish,
making a living as fishermen.

In April 2010 the resolve of Louisiana’s marsh dwellers is disrupted by an oil spill that soon morphs into one of the world’s largest man-made disasters. Initially, there is minimal concern, as many of these folks have endured hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike and the small-scale oil spills associated with each weather event. This incident, however, is different. The spill is in deep water. The “tools” used to stop the gusher are ineffective, and the clock is ticking on the harvesting of shrimp and oysters. Many of these watermen have worked in the oil industry, and this spill is truly an unknown.

When the hydrocarbon industry arrived in the marshes in the early 20th century, the current watermen’s ancestors, for the first time, worked for wages. There was a symbiotic relationship between fishing and working on the rigs or captaining or manning a crew boat. They knew the industry, but this spill is different. There is no apparent end-point; it is a spill of biblical proportions. For the first time one segment of the marsh dwelling community is unemployed, as the oil spill interrupts its occupational cycle.

They are frustrated, and the longer the oil is floating to the surface and moving with the Gulf’s currents, it becomes clear the harvest of renewable resources is in jeopardy. In short, a lifestyle is awash in the effects of an uncontrolled oil spill. It is too early to tell, but a landscape of people may be terminated by an “event” that may alter the marshdwellers’ lifestyle and their beloved marshes. In the past, radical environmental change constituted just another complication to their lives. This event is infringing on their personal space, and they have no recourse but to watch and hope their coast somehow survives.

In the end, the coast is a people place, as they give this topographic element its significance. Otherwise, this landscape would not have any recognizable importance, other than aesthetic. The marsh dwellers are, therefore, the key factor in defining the geography of the lowlands. We can only hope the people prevail. If not, the marsh’s future as a people place may be bleak.

 


20100609-cover2-0101New Meaning
The timing of a new book on Louisiana’s wetlands is coincidental; its contribution to the knowledge base is welcome.

Written By Walter Pierce

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the different life this book could take on,” says geographer Don Davis, a retired LSU (and before that Nicholls State) professor who spent a good sum of his life since the Age of Aquarius moving among the disparate subcultures of coastal Louisiana — the fishermen, oyster harvesters, trappers, hunters deck hands, roustabouts — studying the complex and delicate confederacy of flesh, fauna, flora and the Gulf of Mexico.

In what must go down as one of the most uncanny ticks of the publishing clock in decades, Davis’s book, Washed Away: The Invisible Peoples of Louisiana’s Wetlands, was whirring through a Canadian printing press on April 21 when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig memorialized 11 men on the obituary pages and sprang the most profligate oil spill in U.S. history, threatening ruin on the people and places Davis had so lovingly and meticulously studied and written about since 1967.

Washed Away ($49.50, UL Lafayette Press) is part anthropology, part geography, a historical account, scientific compendium and cultural narrative of the people — Cajuns, Creoles, Filipinos, Chinese, Slavs, Protestants, Catholics, atheists and untouchables — who have earned a living by the seasons and tides long before Jefferson out-negotiated Napoleon.

20100609-cover2-0102Now, with a Rorschach blot mingling with the marshland reeds and washing up lifeless gannets and turtles on our beaches, Davis is proprietor of an important contribution to coastal Louisiana studies, possibly and dreadfully a final account of what was. And he’s mindful of the region’s duality in water and oil.

“When you look at south Louisiana, the oil and gas industry and the seafood industry have pretty much worked hand in hand,” he says. “A fellow might work in the shrimping business, then he gets a call, they need some fellows on a rig; he goes and works the rigs for a while, he comes back, he works the rigs. It’s a symbiotic relationship — a way to support your family. Not many places can say that.”

Adding dense to coincidence, Davis also administered the Louisiana Oil Spill Research and Development Program, lending his voice to more than 100 books, journals and other publications. “Louisiana cleaned up a lot of oil after Katrina, and we did it very efficiently,” he says with a sigh. “But nobody’s been asked to do what we’re about to see.”

A frequent speaker at symposia and conferences, Davis was encouraged by colleagues to bundle his “knowledge base,” as he calls it, into a book. The final manuscript, edited and laid out with hundreds of photographs, maps and illustrations gathered from sources near and far, was ready to go earlier this year. Then the BP disaster happened, and Don Davis, who knows better than anyone the depth of resilience and fortitude of Louisiana’s coastal peoples  — in “peoples” he borrows from anthropology to emphasize the heterogeneity of humanity plying the state’s bays, marshes and inlets  — is left wondering less about his book and more about the people and places in it.

“This may be what the wetlands looked like,” he says, tapping at the cover photo of Washed Away, “and they may never look that way again, and that’s bad.”

Davis contributed the essay, “Peril,” to this edition of The Independent Weekly.


20100609-cover3-0101Spillover Effect
UL prof questions state’s sand berm plan for blocking oil, says Horizon’s tar balls may persist for a decade

Written by Nathan Stubbs

As a biologist and coastal plant ecologist, Mark Hester has spent 30 years researching Louisiana’s wetlands and barrier islands. Working in UL Lafayette’s Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology, the focus of Hester’s Coastal Plant Ecology Lab has been primarily on the use of vegetation to restore degraded coastal habitats and has also included studies of the effects of oil spills in wetland areas. We spoke with Hester recently to get his thoughts on the long-term impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill and what can be done to revive the affected wetlands.

Has the focus or the scope of your research changed since the oil spill? Is there anything your research team is doing directly related to the spill now?

We have a lot of existing, what we call permanent plots — plots that we re-sample over time or plots that are set up from other studies that we have access to. We have a fair amount of plots that we’ve recently sampled, so we have a pretty good record of the pre-spill conditions of the plant community and of the soil; it’s just a matter of seeing when all of this ends and then looking at how these different marshes and areas are responding, the degree of oiling and how impacted they are, and then we can look at recovery from there.

Right now, a lot of efforts that people are doing are just kind of bootleg and doing what they can do. It’s a little early to get any significant research funding yet as far as formal impact assessment. But, we’ve still got to wait for this thing to get plugged, because one thing you don’t want to do with cleanup or sampling, the worst thing you can do once a marsh is actually oiled is go out there and trample around on it. Any sampling that we would do would have to be very minimal or zero impact.

At some of our marsh sites, we have boardwalks where we can stay off the marsh and still get to them, and those are going to be the optimal sites. If you trample the oil in the marsh and you get that oil down into the soft substrate it can persist much, much longer than if it was just left on top of the marsh. Left on top of the marsh, natural processes will take over and break it down; it is a naturally-formed, organic product, and basically microbes and things can break it down over time. But if you get it pushed down into those deep layers, where the oxygen’s not available, it can persist for very long periods of time.

If we did nothing, how long would it take for this oil to naturally degrade and break down?

It really depends a lot on the oil; different oils will break down at different rates, and there’s several issues with this spill because it did happen offshore, and there’s been a lot of dispersants used. We have a lot of that submerged oil coming onshore as tar balls. That may persist with beaches getting tar balls, especially in the Louisiana coast, areas that are already having them and other parts of the north coast, that may be going on for a decade. It’s hard to say, but definitely many years, probably three to five years for sure. To me, that’s a real major impact with all the beautiful beaches we have on the northern Gulf coast and the tourist industry. As far as toxicity to fisheries, it’s very difficult to say. Fish are mobile, and this may reduce some of the impacts on adult fish. However, sessile organisms, such as oysters, and juvenile fish will likely be much more impacted. As far as wetlands response, again, it’s highly variable, probably in salt marshes, you have a good chance of not detecting any significant amount of hydrocarbons after 10 years I think. But again, it’s hard to say because this is a very unusual spill where you’re getting this kind of repeated oiling for prolonged times. Most of the spills we’ve looked at have been more near shore spills, and it’ll come in on one high tide or the next, coat the marsh, go out, and then that might be it; the oiling impact may only be over a period of a few days. We may see more persistent effects on this spill just because of the persistent leaking and discharge, so we won’t really know with this spill until we follow it through time.

We could really see tar balls for 10 years from this spill?

It may be possible. Because you just can’t clean that oil now that it’s submerged; it may continue to be transported and gradually work its way up to the shore and get on the beach. That could continue happening for many years. It’ll be one of those trailing-off things — you can get a lot of tar balls early on, but tar balls could easily still be coming up eight, nine, 10 years from now to some extent on the beaches.

We’re in hurricane season now. How great of an effect would a major Gulf storm have if it struck right now?

That’s a wild card. No one knows. There could be some potential benefits and also some potential detriments. It really depends on the nature of the storm and where it makes landfall. In areas where you get a surge bringing oil further inland, more on the perimeter of the hurricane’s impact, that would be a very bad thing because the oil could come in much farther that it already is.

Some scientists believe that in the areas where there’s actually the highest physical energy from the hurricane, the good news would be it would be fairly weathered oil and that high physical energy would probably really break it up and disperse it. So yeah, it’s going to disperse oil into more marshes, more area of marsh, but in some ways it’s spreading out the impact from any one given area. However, unless the leak is stopped very soon, any of these potential benefits of the high physical energy associated with a hurricane may be lost simply because of the huge cumulative amount of oil being released.

What’s your opinion of the plan being pushed by coastal parish and state officials, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, to build sand berms or extended barrier islands to keep oil from ever entering the marsh?

Well, it’s hard to accurately assess until we see what is actually permitted to be built. If the plan is we need to dredge and plug all tidal passes between barrier islands and Barataria, Terrebonne and Timbalier Bay, it’s a very bad idea and probably not feasible. If the plan is to maybe first target some areas that have small openings, let’s say within an island with small breaches, that may work, but trying to essentially block off an estuary like the Barataria Basin seems non-viable, and it may cause more damage because either you’re going to fail in closing it; or if you do actually close a given area, you can end up eroding the natural islands on either end of that.

It’s one of those things that I think sounds good to the general public, you know, “It’s easier to clean up a beach than a marsh; let’s keep it out of the estuary out of the marsh,” but the physics are against you, and you could cause more damage doing that, more erosion of existing islands and shorelines. Water has to be allowed to flow in and out with flood and ebb tides. If the hydrology is substaintially altered and inlets constricted, you may just encourage more breaches and loss of other existing barrier islands and shorelines. So, it’s something that has to be done very cautiously, and I would say on a limited scale, if at all.

It seems like we’re very limited in what we can do to stop the oil from coming in and then in restoring the marsh. Is this something that ultimately is just going to have to naturally recover?

Other than some of the sandy shorelines, you really don’t want to try to implement cleanup methods in the wetlands, in the marshes themselves, until the leak is stopped, and then you have to have a very thoughtful consideration of what the impacts are before you try to do remediation. A lesson learned from other oil spills is once a marsh is oiled and there’s a lot of impact to vegetation, often times you’re going to worsen the impacts trying to do some human cleanup option at that point rather than letting Mother Nature take its course.

There are some other options available. There’s been some research with microbes, seeding areas of wetlands [with microbes] where there’s oil to increase breakdowns. So that is a fairly non-obtrusive technique that you can do, but again, it really depends on the nature of the oil and how big of an area it is that you’re trying to clean up. Another thing people talk about is fertilizing wetlands, kind of the same idea. If you add some fertilizer to the wetlands, you may stimulate the bacteria or the microbes that would break down the oil, but it depends on what the microbe community is there; you may not get the desired effect.

Again, it just takes a lot of careful thought and figuring out the characterization of the area that is oiled before you should really initiate a cleanup response or remediation on an actual wetland. And that’s unfortunate, because obviously people want to do something. But sometimes responding too quickly results in what ultimately is a bad decision that causes more impact.

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