Published: October 2010

Gulf Oil Spill

Louisiana Wetlands

Forlorn in the Bayou

Louisiana’s wetlands are resilient and have bounced back before. But no one knows how long this recovery will take.

By Bruce Barcott
Photograph by Joel Sartore

Where land meets the sea in the Mississippi River Delta, down at the bottom of the Louisiana boot, the term "coastline" doesn't really apply. There is no line. There are only the dashed pen strokes of the barrier islands, a dozen or so thin beachheads, and beyond, a porous system of open bays, canals, salt and brackish marshes, and freshwater swamps running inland for 25 to a hundred miles.

These are the Louisiana wetlands—12,355 square miles of one of the most productive ecosystems in North America. Mullet are so profuse they will literally jump into a fisherman's boat. Brown pelicans, tricolored herons, roseate spoonbills, great egrets, and blue-winged teal ducks call this place home.

One-third of the United States oyster and shrimp crop comes out of the waters along the Louisiana coast. And 98 percent of the fish, shrimps, crabs, and oysters harvested along that coast depend on habitat in and around the marshes of the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, an area that encompasses some four million acres south and west of New Orleans. Without these marshes, bordered by the Atchafalaya River on the west and the Mississippi on the east, there is no shrimp fishery or oyster harvest; neither are there reeds and grasses for nesting and migrating birds. Without the marshes, the rich human culture of the bayou has no foundation.

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