Estuaries: Lifeblood of the Gulf

National Estuaries Week (September 17-24, 2016) is a reminder of just how vital estuaries are to not only those that live, work and play among them, but to the entire nation. An estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water where salt water from the sea combines with fresh water from rivers and streams. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that estuaries are the lifeblood of our coast and of the entire Gulf region.

Estuaries are among the most productive environments in the world and provide plants, fish, wildlife and people with a host of services. The mixing of salt and fresh water forms a dynamic environment a vast array of species depend on every day to eat, live and reproduce. Estuaries are often referred to as the nurseries of the sea because they are spawning areas for many species of fish and wildlife. Several endangered species including the brown pelican, bald eagle and piping plover use estuaries as nesting and nursery grounds.

Many people depend on a healthy estuary to make a living. The economic value of these areas cannot be overstated. Much of the fish and shellfish that Americans love to eat use estuaries for part of their life cycle. Others, such as the oyster, spend their entire life in estuaries. In addition to commercial fisheries, the transportation industry relies on waterways located in estuarine environments for the commerce of many goods that Americans purchase.

Louisiana is called Sportsman’s Paradise for good reason. The coast of Louisiana is home to the most productive fishing grounds in the nation. Recreational fishing is big business here and many of the fish that sportsmen and women love to catch rely on estuaries to survive, including redfish and speckled trout. An integral part of the Mississippi Flyway, Louisiana hosts species such as gadwalls, wigeons, pintails, and blue-winged teal during the winter months. Millions of ducks and geese use the wetlands of Louisiana every year. For more info, read our previous blog Why Estuaries Matter to Sportsmen.

Estuaries are valuable – but vulnerable. When estuaries are vulnerable, so are the communities further inland. These ecosystems serve as natural barriers, offering protection by dissipating storm surge and absorbing flood waters. We’re losing land and losing it fast. In the last 80 years, Louisiana has lost 1,880 square miles of land and is at risk of losing another 1,750 in the next 50 years. Much of this land is estuarine habitat. The transportation, fishing, and tourism industries that many of these communities rely on to survive become more at risk with every square mile of land that we lose.

Causes of land loss are both natural and man-made. Estuaries have been deprived of much needed fresh water and sediment due to the leveeing of the Mississippi River resulting in higher salinity levels and subsidence (land sinking). Canals dredged for oil and gas exploration have cut up our wetlands, allowing salt water into our basins. Environmental disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill added even more stress to an already fragile system.

Though the statistics for land loss are sobering, there IS hope. The 2010 oil spill, though devastating, offers an opportunity for large-scale restoration that is needed not only for the sustainability of Louisiana’s coast, which was hardest hit, but also the entire Gulf Coast.

The Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States Act (RESTORE Act) became law as a result of the oil spill. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (Council) is responsible for dispensing over $3 billion in funds from litigation settlements with BP, Transocean, and Anadarko. This year, the Council is updating its Comprehensive Plan, which serves as a framework in the selection of restoration projects along the Gulf Coast. Each of the five Gulf Coast states have their own initiatives for implementing the RESTORE Act.

Louisiana has the Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast (Coastal Master Plan). However, unlike the other four states, Louisiana began its plan for coastal protection and sustainability before the oil spill. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority(CPRA) was formed in 2005 after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Coastal Master Plan outlines priority restoration projects to sustain Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem, protect vital cultural and economic resources, and maintain diverse fish and wildlife habitats. CPRA is the representative agency to the RESTORE Council and the Coastal Master Plan details guidelines for project selection in Louisiana. CPRA is currently updating the Coastal Master Plan for 2017.

Public meetings will be held to discuss updates to the Coastal Master Plan. Be on the looking for more information on that soon.

There is much work to be done in coastal Louisiana and it’s important that our citizens as well as our government officials understand how vital these ecosystems are to life in Louisiana and to the entire nation.

National Estuaries Week is the perfect time to get outdoors and enjoy the fish, wildlife and natural beauty that our many estuaries provide. Support efforts to protect and sustain these beautiful, dynamic systems. Restoring our estuaries is essential to restoring the lifeblood of the Gulf.

The Louisiana Camouflage Coalition offers sportsmen and women the opportunity to send information and opinions on issues important to hunters and anglers to decision makers at the local, state and federal level. Follow us on Twitter @LACamoCoalition and sign up to receive action alerts to send messages to the decision makers that represent you.

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