On a Louisiana island, the 2014 generation of pelicans may be the last

The remains of an island in Cat Bay (Plaquemines Parish)
The remains of an island in Cat Bay (Plaquemines Parish)

(WVUE) - On a tiny island eight miles northeast of Grand Isle, Plaquemines Parish officials wonder if they are seeing the last generation of Louisiana Brown Pelicans hatch there.

In 2010, four islands in Cat Bay were home to several thousand pelicans and other nesting birds.

At the height of nesting season, oil from the BP Macondo well blowout piled onto the shorelines of each island.

"This was ground zero for the spill," said P.J. Hahn, the Plaquemines Coastal Zone Management Director.

Three of the four islands have virtually disappeared, leaving one island with enough real estate to support nests.

"Right now, in Barataria Bay, this is it." said Robert Spears, G.I.S. Manager for Plaquemines Parish.

Although the islands were eroding long before the Gulf oil spill, parish officials argue the disaster hastened their demise.

As mangrove trees and grass died, soil that clung to the roots had nothing to hold on to.

"During the oil spill, one of the things that happened, everybody lawyered up," said Hahn, who has spent four years scrambling to find enough money to restore some of the islands. "The five states lawyered up, the parishes, the counties lawyered up, the communities and even the strippers on Bourbon Street lawyered up. Nobody lawyered up for these birds."

The parish already has the necessary permits for a $6 million project on one of the islands, which locals call "Cat Island."

It plans to encircle the island with a rock barrier and pump in sand and dirt to rebuild 21 acres.

"We only have enough to do half of an island right now," Hahn said. "We're hoping once we get started, the rest of the money will show up."

Wildlife experts have warned Hahn if the parish doesn't act soon, it may be too late since Pelican chicks imprint on the island where they were born.

Hahn fears "a situation where we build it and they won't come" as succeeding generations lose interest in the island.

The parish cobbled together $3 million dollars from various sources, including $1 million in federal funds funneled through the state. However, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has balked at filling the gap.

"If we had more money, we could do more projects," said CPRA Chairman Jerome Zeringue. "You have to prioritize where you are going to put the money."

Cat Island sits in the middle of nowhere, six miles from the nearest land, pounded daily by waves and tidal action, and suffering serious subsidence.

"We know we can go rebuild these different islands, but the reality is they won't be here 10, 15 years from now," Zeringue said.

Hahn argues engineers have a know-how to build a more durable island, with better materials borrowed from the Mississippi River bottom.

Even if it completes a scaled-down restoration on Cat Island, the three others appear to be lost.

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