Going, Going, Gone: the last of Louisiana's Cat Island erodes

Is Cat Island worth saving?

PLAQUEMINES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - At sea level in southwestern most Plaquemines Parish, a thriving springtime metropolis is now an avian ghost town.

"Oh, it's heartbreaking," said P.J. Hahn, who does consulting work related to the coast as he surveyed the remains of a small island in Cat Bay.

Six years ago, "Cat Island" was awash in crude during the Gulf spill as thousands of pelicans and other birds nested on this and three nearby islands.

Plaquemines Parish government blames BP's Macondo Well blowout for hastening the island's demise.  
After years of steadily eroding, the island has finally vanished from view.

In mid-tide, with winds out of the south, the remains of the island lie below the surface.

"After the hurricane season this year, it's probably going to be the end of the island," Hahn said.

A couple miles away, about 200 pelicans cling to the last of four islands in Cat Bay, a ribbon of sand barely the size of a lot in suburbia.

Some mature birds compete with egrets for prime nesting spots and a few lucky chicks might be the final generation here.

"The natural cycle is telling us that's all going to go underwater," said Chris McLindon, a geologist who has become active in coastal issues.

Over the last 6,000 years, McLindon points out the Mississippi River built 16 separate deltas.  As the fickle river changed course, the Gulf reclaimed the land.

On Google Earth maps, McLindon points out, "you can see the sediment just streaming off of that island. But that whole area is sinking and has been sinking."

Cut off from the river by levees, and starved of fresh water and sediment, the delta sinks.

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that Grand Isle, just miles to the west, sinks at a rate 9 times faster than Key West, Florida.

"Trying to build land in a center of subsidence there is fighting against nature," McLindon said. "And I think the logical conclusion would be you're probably not going to prevail."

Money from the BP spill is slated to pay for the restoration of at least one island under the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA).

"I wouldn't recommend it," McLindon said, arguing that the smarter play might be to establish a rookery for pelicans in a more stable area.

However, wildlife experts say, the young birds imprint on the island where they hatched and return there to nest.

Only a half dozen large pelican rookeries remain in Louisiana, and all of them, to one degree or another, are in trouble.

"Protecting what we can and restoring what we can with available sediment nearby is something that we need to start doing now," said Doug Meffert, Executive Director of Audubon Louisiana on a trip to the island last year.

Meffert cautioned restoration was essential, "so that we don't get to a place where we start to have so little habitat that we start having those population declines."

Hahn, the former director of the Plaquemines Parish coastal zone management office, helped secure a permit to begin construction.

However, he said NRDA funds in fiscal 2017 cover engineering and design, work that has already been completed for the island.

"Now, all we need are the construction funds, which we're looking at another two years before we see the construction funds."

Meanwhile, Hahn said the estimated cost of restoration has doubled to $12 million.

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