BP spill fines pay for the restoration of Queen Bess Island, a vital pelican nesting site

Contractors race the clock to finish the project in time
Updated: Nov. 6, 2019 at 7:29 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A few miles north of Grand Isle, contractors race the clock in a first-of-its-kind island restoration.

A $10 million dredging project is piecing back together Queen Bess Island, a major breeding ground for brown pelicans.

While island restorations are nothing new along Louisiana’s coast, the state is working with a short window of time sandwiched between the end of this year’s nesting season and the beginning of next year’s.

Funding comes primarily from BP through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) associated with the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

“Queen Bess was the bullseye of the Deepwater Horizon spill,” said Todd Baker, Biologist Director at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Brown pelicans near construction equipment being used on the Queen Bess restoration
Brown pelicans near construction equipment being used on the Queen Bess restoration(John Snell | John Snell)

Queen Bess is the third largest brown pelican rookery in Louisiana, producing 15-20 percent of the state’s nesting activity, according to the LDWF.

However, like much of Louisiana’s coast, the island is sinking and eroding.

During breeding season, a few thousand pelicans crowed onto five acres of real estate surrounded by a rock barrier installed in the 1990s.

The restoration project will raise the island’s elevation while enhancing the existing rock ring around the island.

Drone photo of Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle
Drone photo of Queen Bess Island near Grand Isle(LDWF (custom credit) | LA. Dept. of Wildlife & Fisheries)

Material is dredged from the Mississippi River near Belle Chasse, then barged to the site.

Contractors will slope the island from the highest elevation at the southwest end and the lowest at the northeast.

Part of the island will be planted with black mangroves and other vegetation.

Bird ramps will be placed around the island to provide flightless juvenile birds with safe and easy access to the water.

Limestone will cover about one-third of the island to provide habitat for other bird species looking for beachfront property.

Pelicans take flight along Queen Bess Island
Pelicans take flight along Queen Bess Island(John Snell | John Snell)
Pelicans near the shoreline along Queen Bess Island
Pelicans near the shoreline along Queen Bess Island(John Snell | John Snell)

“It’s really special,” Baker said. “You don’t get the opportunities to do what we’re doing here today.”

The entire project measures only about 36 acres, but that will provide roughly six times the current habitat.

Never before in Louisiana have contractors worked with these kind of time constraints.

“It doesn’t leave a lot of room for error,” said Katie Freer-Leonards, the project manager for the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Biologists say one positive sign is the large number of pelicans remaining on or near the island despite all the commotion of construction.

For centuries, Louisiana’s coastline has involved a battle of land and sea.

As the Mississippi River shifted course, it sculpted a new delta while land in the old delta lobe steadily broke into pieces.

That formed islands just far enough removed from the main land mass to make islands relatively free of predators, a pelican paradise for nesting.

Today, man locks the river in a straight jacket of levees, interrupting the natural course of land building.

“There aren’t new islands being created fast enough to replace the ones that are disappearing,” said Erik Johnson, Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Louisiana.

Ten years ago, pelicans nested in 22 colonies along the Louisiana coast. 14 of those colonies remain.

“This creates a lot of potential for disaster because of oil spills, hurricanes, those sorts of things,” Johnson said.

By next spring, Queen Bess should support more birds.

“If everything goes as we think it will, the nesting population could increase out there four or five fold,” Baker said.

Pelicans taking flight along Queen Bess Island
Pelicans taking flight along Queen Bess Island(John Snell)

The island is also historically significant.

The pelicans virtually vanished from Louisiana in the late 1950s after the widespread use of the pesticide DDT.

The state bird stopped nesting in 1961.

However, state biologists began a restoration effort in 1968, reintroducing the birds from Florida.

By 1971, they documented 11 nests on the island, marking the first successful recolonization of pelicans.

Today, biologists estimate close to 50,000 pelicans inhabit Louisiana, including new chicks that hatch on islands.

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