Pelicans missing from two tiny islands in Barataria Bay

P.J. Hahn, the Plaquemines Parish coastal zone management director, walks along dead mangrove trees on an island in Cat Bay
P.J. Hahn, the Plaquemines Parish coastal zone management director, walks along dead mangrove trees on an island in Cat Bay

Plaquemines Parish, La. -- In the Wilkinson Canal, just north of Barataria Bay, dolphins feast in waters teeming with sea life. Over the nearby marsh, white pelicans soar in majestic flight.

Farther from shore, there is trouble.

On an island in Cat Bay, seven brown pelicans land on a tiny speck of real estate.  Just one year ago, hundreds of pelicans and shore birds prepared to nest.

"If we don't build this island back, we're going to lose all of the different nesting birds," said Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Management Director P.J. Hahn.

Today the island barely qualifies as a speed bump, only a couple of feet in elevation at low tide and virtually devoid of life.  Yet Hahn was thrilled recently to see any land at all when he checked on this island and another a few miles to the east.

"It really is exciting just to see a little bit of land," Hahn said.

The islands of Cat Bay first drew attention weeks after the 2010 BP oil spill. Directly in the path of the oil, the larger of the two islands stretched roughly four acres, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  Today, the island measures barely one acre, its mangroves mostly dead.

"Along the outer shoreline, we had a lot of mangroves, big, high, tall mangroves 8 to 10 feet tall and it was covered in birds," Hahn said. "They really liked this area."

Plaquemines Parish has cobbled together $3 million from various sources, including the state and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP).  Hahn says that will cover the cost of building some kind of barrier around the island to knock down the wave action.

However, pumping sand and dirt to build back the islands would require as much as $10 million more.  The parish hopes to tap into more money from the state, or perhaps some kind of early advance from settlements in the BP court cases involving the spill.

"I don't want to blame this all on BP," Hahn said. "Certainly it wouldn't be right.  But they had a hand in this, accelerating the rate of the land loss."

The islands were in trouble long before the spill.  As late as 1998, the USGS estimated the size of one of them to be 40 acres.  Cut off from the nutrients of the Mississippi River and subjected to waves from tides and storm, the islands have steadily eroded.

The last serious blow came in Hurricane Isaac late last August, when the islands sat underwater for 72 hours.

Hahn insists it is not too late to save the islands. "I'm not giving up until we drive over it and it's just water and a GPS marking on our map," he told us.  "I can't give up."