Delaware Coast Gulf Aid check presented to Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program

by Dave on August 10, 2010

When Bethany Blues restaurateur Kevin Roberts conceived the idea to organize and host a benefit event in Dewey Beach to support oil spill recovery and habitat restoration in the Gulf Coast, he had no idea he would find himself picking up tar balls along the shorelines of Grand Isle, Louisiana less than two months later. But a two day, whirlwind tour of the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary left Roberts with more than oil-stained fingers and heartburn from Cajun cooking. His self-paid trip to coastal Louisiana to learn more about the impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill also opened his eyes to the struggles of bayou residents to sustain the wetland resources upon which their livelihoods and culture depend.

Chip Thompson, a local advertising executive with Atlantic Horizons and a Gulf Aid event co-organizer, also paid his way to accompany Roberts on the trip. They were joined by Ed Lewandowski, Executive Director at the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays and a close colleague of the staff at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP).

According to Roberts, “This trip was so much more than an occasion to hand-deliver the Gulf Aid check to the event’s beneficiary. It was an opportunity to experience first-hand the plight of a people to preserve their coastal way of life in the face of terrific hardships, such as hurricanes, significant wetland losses, and now a catastrophic oil spill!”

After arriving in New Orleans, the group traveled down Bayou Lafourche to Grand Isle, Louisiana, which is located on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Their first stop was the Louisiana Department Of Wildlife and Fisheries facility where Mel Landry, Public Involvement Coordinator with BTNEP, is overseeing the receipt and distribution of donated supplies and materials from countless corporations, businesses and organizations. Wooden pallets stacked high with products including rubber boots, paper towels, backpacks, dishwasher detergent and toothbrushes for scrubbing birds were ready to be moved to the oil spill work force. Landry has been living and working on Grand Isle since late-April, when BTNEP’s response to the oil spill was initiated.

At this site, they also toured a stabilization facility for oiled brown pelicans. Seven pelicans were leaving the facility and headed for the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Fort Jackson, La. while six newly oiled pelicans had just been delivered. Richard DeMay, BTNEP’s Senior Scientist, explained how federal and state wildlife officials have been working together with private organizations on a daily basis to rescue birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The weather was abnormally hot (heat indices approached 115 degrees), so an afternoon boat ride on Barataria Bay was welcomed. Numerous shrimp and oyster boats with trailing red and yellow booms were observed anchored idly in the bay awaiting the next incursion of oil into bay waters. Dean Blanchard, BTNEP’s Habitat Enhancement Coordinator, noted that the response and clean-up activity had slowed considerably since the flow of crude into the Gulf had been capped almost three weeks prior.

The boat tour included a stop at Queen Bess Island, a salt marsh restoration site that serves as a primary pelican rookery in Barataria Bay. In early June, driven by strong winds and weather, oil impacted the rookery, which resulted in 60 birds, including 41 pelicans being coated with oil. Two months later, numerous juvenile pelicans were observed perched on the floating, yellow booms that surrounded the island.

The Delaware trio also had a chance to observe clean-up activities on the deserted beaches of Grand Isle. Piles of oiled sand that had been shoveled and deposited by the work force crews extended in both directions as far as the eyes could see. “It really hit home for me when we walked the closed, oil-stained beaches on a beautiful August day,” said Thompson. “I couldn’t imagine having to climb over plastic red fencing to reach the shoreline back in Rehoboth.”

BTNEP staff also took the group on a tour of another significant habitat restoration project near Port Fourchon, the nucleus of the oil industry’s marine vessel operations in Louisiana. There, a one-mile long, 8’ high ridge had been created using dredge spoils from port deepening activities. An intensive effort to vegetate the ridge with beneficial trees and woody herbaceous shrubs was underway and BTNEP staff was pleased with the progress of their plantings. In addition to providing valuable habitat for migrating songbirds, the ridge also offers the port significant protection from hurricane storm surges. Thompson was impressed with the effort and said, “Touring their wetland restoration projects made me realize that the fundraising we did as a community really will have a positive impact in the Gulf.”

Later, during a stop at the offices of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in Thibodaux, LA, Dr. Earl Melancon, a marine scientist with the Department of Biological Sciences at Nicholls State University, described his concerns about the oil spill’s impacts on the local oyster industry. A decision by the State to divert hundreds of thousands of gallons of freshwater from the Mississippi River in an attempt to keep oil from flowing into Barataria Bay had decimated the estuary’s oyster population. The quantity of freshwater released had lowered salinities in the bay to a level below which oysters are able to survive. In Dr. Melancon’s professional opinion, it will be a minimum of four to five years before the oyster industry will be able to recover.

After speaking with Dr. Melancon, Roberts expressed his frustration about such misdirected and mismanaged actions in response to the oil spill. Roberts said, “The private and government bodies in charge of the oil spill effort should start giving primary consideration to the recommendations from organizations such as BTNEP, as opposed to the politically motivated organizations, for proper and effective restoration and cleanup of the wetlands, beaches, and their surroundings.”

The trip culminated with an authentic Cajun crab boil prepared by BTNEP staff at a camp on the bayou near Lake Verret. Prior to the feast, a Gulf Aid check in the amount of $60,000 was presented to Kerry St. Pe’, Director of the Barataria-Terrebonne Estuary Program. According to Roberts, a final Gulf Aid payment will be provided to BTNEP after remaining sponsor contributions are collected and all event expenses are paid.

St. Pe’ again expressed his deep appreciation to Delaware’s coastal community for its generosity and thoughtfulness and said the Louisiana visit by the Delaware group solidified a special bond that formed during his recent stay in Dewey Beach to attend the Delaware Coast Gulf Aid event. St. Pe’ exclaimed, “There are a lot of similarities between our two communities. Louisiana’s and Delaware’s estuaries are an important part of our commerce, our culture, and our coastal way of life. We are extremely grateful to Delaware’s coastal residents for their care and concern and we are committed to using the Gulf Aid funds to improve the conditions of our local waterways and wetlands.”

For more information about our local National Estuary Program, the Center for the Inland Bays, please visit the organization’s web site at www. inlandbays.org or call (302) 226-8105.

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