25-29 October 2021

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Ocean in the News:

Concept of the Week: Loss of Louisiana's Coast

According to the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force, Louisiana has been losing its coastal wetlands (bayous, marshes, and swamps) to the waters of the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate of about 65 to 100 square km (25 to 38 square mi) per year for the past several decades. This loss adversely affects fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and makes the coastal zone more vulnerable to storm surges such as that produced by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Since the early 1930s, the state's coastal wetlands have shrunk by an area equivalent to the state of Delaware. According to USGS estimates, an additional 1800 square km (700 square mi) could be lost by mid-century. The price tag for reversing this trend, restoring some marshes, and protecting the remaining 15,000 square km (5800 square mi) of wetlands could top $14 billion and take decades to complete. Many people argue that the value of Louisiana's coastal wetlands is well worth the expense.

As much as 75% of the fish and other marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico depend on Louisiana's coastal wetlands. The wetlands are a nursery for commercially important catches of shrimp, crawfish, blue crab, and oysters. It is a food source for larger fish including yellow fin tuna, red snapper, and swordfish. In 2003, about three-quarters of the nation's fish and shellfish catch by weight came from Louisiana's waters. In addition, the wetlands are a stopover for millions of birds migrating between North and Central/South America. Furthermore, wetlands and associated barrier islands protect the ports, buildings, and other coastal zone structures from storm surges. Wetlands are particularly important in buffering the levees surrounding New Orleans, much of which is below sea level.

Many factors contribute to the loss of Louisiana's coastal wetlands. Thousands of kilometers of pipelines transporting oil and natural gas through the marshes plus the extensive network of navigation channels allow saltwater to intrude the wetlands. Increased salinity of the originally fresh or brackish waters kill wetland grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation that anchor soil in place. The canals also allow tidal currents to flow farther inland, accelerating erosion of wetland soils. The most important factor, however, is the consequence of flood control structures (levees) constructed along the banks of the Mississippi River. Levees constrict the flow of the river so that waters and suspended sediment discharge rapidly into the Gulf. Deprived of a continuous input of sediments and vegetation-supporting nutrients, existing sediments compact, wetlands subside and Gulf waters invade the wetlands. With the anticipated continued rise in sea level due to global climate change (discussed in Chapter 12 of your textbook), erosion of Louisiana's coastal wetland may accelerate in the future.

Plans to reverse the loss of Louisiana's coastal wetlands (the Coast 2005 plan and the Louisiana Coastal Area plan) seek to restore the structure and function of coastal wetlands. One proposal is to breach some levees along the lower Mississippi. This partial diversion of the Mississippi would increase the supply of sediments to the wetlands. Closing or installing locks on some navigation canals would reduce saltwater intrusion. In addition, dredged sediment would be used to re-build wetlands and restore barrier islands.

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Prepared by AMS Ocean Central Staff and Edward J. Hopkins, Ph.D.,
email hopkins@aos.wisc.edu
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