According to Michael Tidwell, in his book Bayou Farewell, twenty-five miles of Louisiana coastline disappear each year. That’s 25. 2-5. And this statistic may be more dramatic in the wake of Katrina and Rita, yet most of us are unaware of what is happening in the estuaries of Southern Louisiana. The state’s rich supply of wildlife, animal, marine, and avian, is threatened by the advance of the Gulf of Mexico into the wetlands. It’s turning fresh water into salt, drowning native grasses, oak trees, cemeteries, and small towns. Changes in the fragile chemistry of the wetlands endangers oysters and crabs. Eventually the migration route for the white and brown shrimp will disappear. The people of this area are in retreat. Louisiana fishermen supply “an astonishing 30 percent of American’s annual seafood harvest, measured by weight.” When the wildlife is gone and the people are relocated to higher ground, we all lose.
In recent years, many of us have experienced the unique culture of “Sout’ Loosiane” by traveling to New Orleans and perhaps cruising down Bayou Black or Lafourche. Many of us know Louisiana through movies like The Big Easy and books such as Heaven’s Prisoners by James Lee Burke. And most of us have fallen in love with the food, the shrimp okra gumbo, the blackened red-fish, the crawfish etoufee. Would there be the BAM of Emeril without Cajun food? What’s Cajun food without Louisiana shrimp, red-fish, oysters, and crabs? The state’s plight is everyone’s problem and Tidwell’s book takes you deep into the heart of the swamp.
Writing before Katrina and Rita, Tidwell relates his journey through the wetlands via shrimp trawlers, crab boats, and oil-company supply ship. He hitch-hikes down bayous and canals, meeting and talking with Cajuns, the Houma tribe, Vietnamese settlers, and the environmentalists who are trying to wake up America to this continuing tragedy. Author and Louisianan Burke says Bayou Farewell is “The best book on Louisiana I have ever read…stunning, beautifully written,” and I have to add that it’s a jolting call to arms for the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. It reminds me of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book length essay about man’s responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Silent Spring changed the way we think about our custodial duty to the environment and Bayou Farewell admonishes us as to how we have forgotten that duty.
Over thousands of years, the Mississippi has built the delta that makes up Southern Louisiana. The estuary and its wildlife developed because of the river’s constant deposit of sediment at its mouth. This natural process has been interrupted by man and levee system which now takes that sediment and dumps it over the continental shelf and into the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, Louisiana wetlands are being starved of its nourishment of dirt, mud, silt, sand. As the sediment is denied into the area, the salty waters of the Gulf are filling the void, moving farther and farther inland. The end result is the disappearance of the land, the creatures that inhabit it, and a unique way of life.
There are solutions to help rebuild the coastline and estuaries, but Tidwell warns us to take action now. At the rate of twenty-five miles per year, that gives us maybe thirty years before it’s all gone.
I urge you to read Bayou Farewell and tell others to read it. Send it to your congressman. Thanks for your attention and time.