Louisiana’s largest brown pelican home has been remodeled thanks to a collaboration among Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, its Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and federal agencies working to repair the damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
Nearly $19 million in fines from the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) after the 2010 spill have been invested in Queen Bess Island, 2 miles east of Grand Isle in Barataria Bay, to repair decades of erosion, subsidence and the heavy oiling from the summer of 2010. As a result, the critical nesting habitat for Louisiana’s state bird and coastal fish at Queen Bess has grown from 5 acres last summer to 36 acres when the project was competed in late February 2020.
The NRDA process is a collaboration between federal and state agencies, called trustees, that identify injuries to fish, wildlife and habitat from oil spills and other accidents and prescribes restoration techniques to directly repair those damages. Restoring Queen Bess was a top priority for state and federal fish and wildlife management agencies.
“From Day One, Gov. Edwards has challenged CPRA and Wildlife and Fisheries to get projects off the drawing board and on the ground,” said Jack Montoucet, executive secretary for LDWF.
Construction was compressed into a 6-month period from late summer 2019 to late February 2020 to avoid interfering with the pelican nesting season. It included ringing the island with limestone chunks up to 3 feet above sea level to give it additional capacity to withstand wave action, subsidence and sea-level rise.
Rock breakwaters were also built on the southwest shoreline to provide calm-water areas for pelicans and other birds. Then, more than 150,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Mississippi River was transported about 25 miles to the island in barges. After the sediment was shaped by bulldozers, tidal sloughs were constructed to allow some water flow into the island, and native vegetation was planted to enhance habitat and fight erosion.
Queen Bess is the last remaining brown pelican rookery in Barataria Basin and was home to the first colony of pelicans reintroduced into Louisiana in 1968. After DDT and other pesticides decimated brown pelicans and other bird populations in the 1950s and early 60s, Louisiana was left without a native population of the iconic bird emblazoned on its state flag. Biologists from Louisiana and Florida worked together to bring 750 young brown pelicans to the Barataria Basin, releasing them on Queen Bess. In 1971, 11 pairs of pelicans had built nests on Queen Bess.
By 2009, there were an estimated 80,000 or more brown pelicans in Louisiana, and the bird was removed from the Endangered Species List. But, several thousand pelicans and critical habitat like Queen Bess Island were harmed a year later by the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Chip Kline, chairman of the CPRA, said the restoration of Queen Bess is one of many steps the state and its federal partners are taking to repair damages to brown pelicans and other birds as well as fish and fishing communities affected by the 2010 disaster.
“This island had experienced degradation for many, many years and that degradation was exacerbated by the BP spill,” he said. “But it also shows how much we’ve recovered and the amount of work we’ve done to recover from the damages and the injuries we experienced as a result of the spill.”
Chris Macaluso is the Center for Marine Fisheries Director, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership