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To Divert or Not to Divert: Our Future Hangs in the Balance

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We can all agree that coastal restoration is about more than catching speckled trout. It’s about saving our communities, our coastal infrastructure, our coastal heritage, and our coastal fisheries. There are a limited number of tools in the coastal restoration tool box. The costs vary and the usefulness varies, but all have both good and bad consequences. Placing rock along the shorelines slows erosion, but it disturbs the critical fringe marsh zone that is so important for interaction of open water with the marsh. Pumping sediment creates new marsh, but leaves a deep hole where the material is taken that may become low in oxygen and is very expensive. There are always trade-offs. Folks involved with planning and building restoration projects have concluded that the good benefits of that approach will outweigh the bad.

todivertornot
Most of the ongoing discussion in coastal restoration concerns building diversions verses pumping sediments. Pumping sediment provides more immediate but also more finite benefits, and it is expensive. Diversions can provide more sustainable benefits, but it takes longer to begin to see benefits. They can also change the fishing or have other negative effects. These are the normal give and take in the ongoing discussion, but other questions have been raised. For several years, LPBF has worked diligently to get a better understanding of diversions by studying those that already have a track record. Mostly, we have worked in the Bohemia Spillway and the Caernarvon Diversion, but we are aware of the record of others such as Wax Lake Delta, Atchafalaya Delta, Violet Siphon, etc.

The question is often asked: “Is the dramatic land loss which occurred near the Caernarvon Diversion during Hurricane Katrina somehow an effect of the Caernarvon Diversion?” The type of loss during Hurricane Katrina was very similar to the loss that occurred from Hurricane Betsy, but the loss from Betsy was much less than that from Katrina.

The map below of the Caernarvon area illustrates some key features. The prominent hurricane scars are not present in a zone around Bayou Mandeville(brown line) which is well known to carry most of the Caernarvon Diversion flow. Also, there is clearly a sediment pile in Lake Lery forming a basis for new wetlands. Of course, within Big Mar, LPBF has well documented the rapidly growing delta there and are even planting a cypress forest on that delta (see Saveourlake.org > Coastal >Technical Documents). Nevertheless, the hurricane scars are present around this zone of sustained marsh and it is still unclear whether some amount of that scarring may be related to the Caernarvon flow beyond where it is sediment enriched.

The Caernarvon “freshwater” Diversion is clearly providing some strong positive benefits to the wetlands in the outfall area where sediment and nutrient concentration is high. Where sediment concentration is lower, it is simply unclear if the nutrients are having a net positive or negative effect. Vegetation tends to re-grow quickly here, but not within the deep hurricane scars.

At Caernarvon, it took 13 years before land building began to be visible in 2004, but at Wax Lake Outlet, it took 30 years for it to start building a delta (1973). Wax Lake Delta now has 40 years of growth. Considering Caernarvon as a “Freshwater” Diversion that has been operated for just 21 years, and has never been operated to optimize sediment introduction, it is remarkable to see what benefits it is providing.

The Bohemia Spillway was created in 1926 when river levees were removed and, since then, has allowed the river to naturally overflow its banks. The land loss here is dominantly due to oil canals and shoreline erosion along the sound. The rates of loss have been reduced to the point that these wetlands will persist for hundreds of years under current conditions. The details are unclear, but somehow the river water is sustaining these wetlands.

Let’s consider the alternative: pumping sediment to build wetlands. The map of Barataria Basin below shows the cumulative land loss in red. This landscape’s extent of collapse is startling and well known (Note the stark contrast to the Bohemia Spillway map.) On the Barataria Basin map, the yellow box is 3 miles by 3 miles. How much would it cost to rebuild the 9 square miles with pumped sediment? Based on the cost of 45 marsh creation projects in the CWPPRA program, the average cost is $70,000 per acre. Nine square miles is 5,800 acres, which means the cost of that yellow square in a sea of red land loss is $400,000,000. Ten of these squares would cost $4 billion.

The State Master Plan illustrated the economic effectiveness of diversions. The $4.5 billion to build diversions will build more land than $15 billion in projects pumping sediment. Yes, building land with diversions will take longer, and there will be some negative effects. But the positive benefits will far outweigh the negative, and we can’t afford the pumping alternative alone. The State identified the areas where it is most important to rebuild wetlands quickly for storm surge buffering, and this is where sediment pumping

projects are planned. Where the river is available and there is a need to rebuild wetlands, river diversions must be used because we need to take advantage of the lower cost to re-build wetlands. The new “Sediment Diversions” will be built and operated to optimize sediment transport and will dramatically improve the positive land-building effects, which will, as a result, outperform Wax Lake Outlet and the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion.

We must build sediment diversions, but it must be done with eyes wide open to the full effects of land loss or gain, fisheries changes, etc. It is likely that a diversion of approximately 75,000 cfs will be built on the east or west bank of the river, and be completed in about 5 years. In the meantime, expect continued collapse of our wetlands except in a few areas such as Wax Lake, Caernarvon and Bohemia where river water is already sustaining the wetlands. Diversions are our best chance to sustain our coast against the onslaught of sea level rise, subsidence and so forth. In the end, this will save our communities, coastal infrastructure, our coastal heritage, and our coastal fisheries.

By John A. Lopez, Ph.D.
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
saveourlake.org

Crisis in the Gulf: Part II

Part II of II
By: Steve McNemar
Photo credit: Michael Strohmeyer
Read Crisis in the Gulf: Part I here.

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The following article was written almost ten years ago. It was published in numerous venues and read into the Congressional Record. However after all that time, while a lot of the names of participants is this struggle have changed, little else has been done to save these ecosystems from destruction.

So why not just topple the rigs? That was the question I posed to Captain Al Walker when he first made me aware of this crises. Walker, an accomplished diver and owner of Gulf Productions, who has been documenting these diverse ecosystems for both the oil and gas industry and for scientist, explained to me that the first 60’ below the surface is critical.

Steve Kolian also said, “Because the structures stand up through the entire water column, the upper habitat of a platform provides substrate for shallow water species. Caribbean fish normally found in the Yucatan and Florida keys, thrive on the transoms and pilings of platforms. The first 60’ opens up the food chain with plankton and small fish species, which then provide food for the larger predators below. Snapper and other fish relate to vertical structure before spawning and lay their eggs within or on the structure. Also many invertebrates’ crabs, corals and sponges would not survive in deeper water. We would lose all of these organisms if the platforms were toppled.”

Dr. Paul Sammarco concurred “Toppling would be only second best as the majority of the ecosystem would not survive. There would be a remaining ecosystem but it would be much smaller, slower growing and not as viable. Remember the beauty of the platforms is that they increase larvae habitat and production of juveniles.”

I even thought that well perhaps something remained after removal that may still provide structure for bottom dwellers. However, when I spoke with Barney Congden who heads up public affairs for Minerals Management Service, he told me that the platforms are removed fifteen feet BELOW the sediment. “We want it to look like a golf course down there.”

Even reports found on the Minerals Management Service web site make the case whether intended or not that standing platforms produce more viable ecosystems than do platforms converted to reefs. In OCS Report MMS 2000-073 the report states that “researchers report fish densities 20 to 50 times higher around active platforms, which also serve as de facto reefs, than in nearby open water.” In another report OCS Study MMS 2003-009 the report states “Our results are in support of previous findings that when a platform is converted into an artificial reef by toppling in place or partial removal, it loses a significant portion of the fish community.” It goes on to state “we tended to find higher fish densities in habitats with more vertical structure.”

Kind of sounds like the scientist I spoke with are right on.

Dr. Sammarco who is also a coral specialist points out that another extremely important aspect of these ecosystems is that corals have colonized platforms in the northern Gulf of Mexico whereas the northern Gulf with few exceptions was void of coral before the establishment of these platforms. While most of the coral reefs around the world are dying out we are establishing healthy populations. In fact it is possible that our coral may be helping to stabilize our Gulf coral populations, as well as those elsewhere outside the immediate Gulf region.. These corals and sponges also are being studied for possible uses as pharmaceuticals and antibiotics. It is very possible that a cure for certain cancers may be growing on one of these platforms that face destruction.

Sammarco says “ Leaving these rigs in place would be a win all the way around – win for government, win for oil companies, win for fishermen, win for scientists and all associated industries plus create new industries.”

Create new industries? What does he mean by that? As I mentioned earlier the Japanese are spending billions in fact 10 billion dollars to build platforms that pale in comparison to ones in the Gulf in order to raise fish. Yes raise fish offshore. According to Kolian one platform could manage 9 net pens, which could produce 9 million pounds of fish annually. That’s the equivalent of the total annual commercial and recreation harvest of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico!

As the planet evolves and mariculture techniques are refined, raising fish in the Gulf of Mexico will become a necessity to feed the worlds hungry. It would then be ludicrous to be forced to spend billions rebuilding platforms that already exist today.

It is extremely feasible that new mariculture and aquaculture industries can be put in place replacing thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industry.

These industries can also take some of the stress off of over fished species and allow the culture and harvest of corals, which are prohibited from being taken in the wild.

The mariculture opportunities are fascinating but space does not permit my expanding on it at this time.

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How Do We Save The Rigs?

To get a better understanding of how the issue began I spoke with Chuck Bedell, an attorney who is the environmental and government affairs manager for Murphy Exploration & Production-USA. Mr. Bedell was Chief Minority Counsel for the Ad Hoc Select Committee on the Outer Continental Shelf when congress re-wrote the Outer-Continental Shelf Lands Act in the mid 1970’s.The idea that we should be saving platforms was never discussed back then and the law requiring removal of the platforms was left in place.

Bedell, who has become a driving force in trying to have that rewritten, says “We had no idea at the time that these ecosystems were being created. No one thought about this positive environmental impact. Our number one objective today is to preserve what we have created. We need to do that by educating government and the people as to what is being destroyed so we can stop the slaughter. If the government was forcing us to destroy 200 natural reefs a year there would be an international out cry.”

    It is my understanding that the hierarchy works something like this:

  1. The United States Congress has ultimate oversight together with the authority and power to change the existing laws regarding the platforms.
  2. MMS – Minerals Management Service-under the Department of the Interior – has direct oversight over oil and gas production facilities.
  3.  The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council oversee the Gulf of Mexico fishery and compliance with the Magnuson Act. Which is interesting since removing these platforms is in direct contrast to protecting “Essential Fish Habitat” as defined in the act!

First the OCS law has to be changed and Congressman David Vitter has filed a bill called the “Rigs to Reefs Act” in order to get that discussion going and the law changed. In fact the gentlemen I quote in this article as well as a few other scientist recently testified before a congressional committee on this topic.

I spoke with Congressman Vitter about this legislation and he was very excited to have submitted it. He feels that the hearing held September 17, 2003 was “very positive” and believes that passage would be a win/win situation for all concerned. He feels it will be a “win for the environment”, as it will stop the destruction of these important ecosystems while being a “win economically by creating new jobs and opportunities in aquaculture and science”.

He said the act would serve to create a federal Rigs to Reefs program that would remove the disincentives for keeping these platforms in place-saving them as long as strict environmental measures were taken-for utilization as artificial reefs, platforms for scientific research and as platforms to be utilized for aquaculture.

He also indicated that the real challenge to passage is in “convincing some members of congress and the environmental community that this truly is a win/win situation for all”-that in removing the platforms we are in fact truly hurting the environment and destroying a valuable ecosystem.

What would happen in a perfect scenario?

  1.  The OCS law would be changed.
  2.  The Rigs to Reefs program would be expanded in that all decommissioned rigs would either be donated to the state or to the Federal Government in a National Rigs to Reefs program.
  3. The oil companies already pay the state an amount equal to half of the cost savings for not having to remove the platform-a payment that can top a million dollars. That amount can be used for maintenance and for upkeep of navigational aides.
  4. Some of the platforms will be leased out for mariculture purposes.

Sounds almost too simple doesn’t it?

Are we close?  Not even barely and we have tough opposition.

According to Mr. Congdon there is a lot of disparity among user groups. Recreational fisherman, divers, scientists and related user groups would like to see them stay. However some commercial fisherman view platforms as obstacles; and environmental groups who fear steel and mercury would like to see them removed. “MMS will do whatever congress instructs us to do but as for now OCS regulations require removal of the platforms within one year after they cease production.”

Most of us know that there are radical environmental groups out there that will take on any cause just to keep their coffers full whether or not the ends justify the means.

You will hear concerns about mercury – in reality a non-issue. Studies have been done over many years and the EPA has long standing regulations in place controlling the amount of any heavy metal in drilling mud. Trefray, et al with the Florida Institute of Technology, issued a recent report. This report released October 15th, 2002 found that while there are higher levels of elemental mercury (Hg) near a few platforms –totals within acceptable levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency- there is no proof of higher concentrations of Methyl Mercury (MeHg) – the nasty culprit that we all fear – than found any where else in the gulf. In fact, it was actually lower around some of the platforms! While not widely known, offshore California, mussels and scallops have been raised on platforms and sold commercially for years, with the approval of the California Heath Department, which tests them for contaminants regularly.

You will hear about rust or platform degradation – again bogus. The scientist tell me that these platforms can survive 300 – 400 years below the water line and will eventually turn in to rock. That is, the steel will eventually corrode 100% but the attached organisms growing on the steel will continue to secrete calcium carbonate, or limestone, and the steel structure will eventually become a carbonate reef.

What can you do to help save these awesome resources?

rigsSpeak up. Make your voice heard. Tell your senators, congressmen, local representatives, MMS, NMFS, Gulf Council and State Wildlife and Fisheries how important you feel it is for these platforms to remain in place.

I have provided numbers and links for you below.

If you are outside of the Gulf region – make your voice heard also. The loss of these ecosystems affects the world – not just the Gulf coast.

I believe Steve Kolian sums it up best:

“About 500 acres of the most prolific and diverse habitat on the planet are being lost every year and no one is even blinking an eye.”

Steve McNemar has been fishing the waters of South Louisiana for almost 50 years. An award winning outdoor writer and radio broadcaster, he is a member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, a nationally published outdoor writer and photographer and Co-Host of the radio show Hunt. Fish. Talk. He is also the CEO of U.S. Impact, Inc located in Mandeville, La. He can be reached via email at steve@usimpactinc.com.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
www.towersoflife.com/ecorigs
www.preserverigs.com

Crisis in the Gulf

Part I of II
By: Steve McNemar
Photo credit: Michael Strohmeyer

How Long Will We Remain Silent?

The following article was written almost ten years ago.

It was published in numerous venues and read into the Congressional Record. However after all that time, while a lot of the names of participants is this struggle have changed, little else has been done to save these ecosystems from destruction.”

The sun was barely over the horizon as we eased the boat into line behind the other fishing vessels. We were targeting amberjack at the oil production platform designated as Main Pass 298.

Unfortunately there were already four boats ahead of us, in line to work the only productive corner of the rig. Unless the over-fished amberjack were particularly hungry – we knew we had a two hour wait while each of the boats tried to fill their one fish per boat limit.

While we broke out the thermoses of coffee and settled in to wait, my mind drifted back to a time just a short ten years ago.

Back then in 2003, oil platforms dotted the Gulf of Mexico as far as the eye could see. There was no waiting in line to fish for an angler had his choice of platforms to fish and back then they all held fish.

I still have a hard time accepting or maybe grasping the thirty-minute rule imposed by the Wildlife and Fisheries Department.

I know it was imposed to do away with the frequent confrontations between anglers all competing for the same fishing spot – some of which turned deadly. However it just seems like yesterday when we could fish the same rig all day if we wanted to and rarely see another angler.

Wildlife and Fisheries Officials in Baton Rouge closely monitor the allotted thirty-minute fishing time today. They watch each platform and monitor fishing times via closed circuit television. Should you still be in position thirty-one minutes later an announcement is made over loud speakers mounted on the platform – you get two warnings – five minutes each – then the Coast Guard is dispatched.

We were not successful during our thirty-minute attempt. We tried diamond jigs and dead bait as you can no longer find our old favorite live bait– the hard tails. We only managed one undersized fish.

After that it was off to drift fish the murky waters of the Louisiana Coast. The high point of the day is usually a stray Bonita or jack crevalle- species we once regarded as trash fish. Gone are snapper – both red and mangrove – together with the majority of the other bottom fish we once targeted. Even with checks and limits in place there was no way to prevent their demise from over fishing once the habitat they used for shelter and for reproduction was removed.

Yesterday we tried fishing for speckled trout at the only remaining rig in the area known as Sandy Point, which was once covered with small platforms in the twenty-foot depths. We had heard that some boats were getting their five fish boat limit fairly easily. However, after waiting in line three hours, the large offshore boats that are forced to fish wherever they can now had stirred the water up too bad and spooked the fish.

Sound like scary science fiction? No it is not. If you are a recreational angler who enjoys fishing the shallow water platforms for speckled trout and red fish or if you are a recreational angler who enjoys fishing the deeper platforms for snapper, amberjack and grouper – unless you begin to make your voice heard now you might as well start looking for a nice farm pond. If you have a two-year-old son or grandson that you look forward to rig fishing with when he turns 12 or 13 years old – you may want to start eyeing some new cane poles instead of offshore gear.

Charter boat captains, commercial fishermen, seafood dealers, tackle shops, lure manufacturers, marina owners – unless you start making your voice heard I hope you have a good 10 year exit plan or a good resume.

Why all the doom and gloom?

Currently there are approximately 4,000 oil and gas platforms near shore and offshore from Texas to Florida. The majority of which lie off the coast of Louisiana.

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act as it currently is written requires the removal of these platforms within one year after they cease production.

What does that mean? It means that we will lose 150-200 platforms per year or half of what we fish now over the next ten years. It is also the older, more productive (from a fisherman’s perspective), more prolific ecosystems closer to shore that we will lose since the oil companies began drilling closer to shore and then began working their way into deeper waters.

We are already feeling these effects. Recently some of the best pompano producing platforms in the state were removed from the West Delta 30 blocks. I was also recently told by Captain Kevin Hunter of Southbound Charters that when he went to fish the South Pass 37 Block in the area known as East Bay that all of the platforms in the entire block were removed. These were old rigs and consistent producers of snapper, grouper and other popular fish– a tragic loss.

It may seam trivial but we are also losing navigational aides. Within the last 60 days a platform many of us used to find our way into the Baptiste Collette channel has been removed.

I also know many old timers that navigate mainly from platform locations. The same thing happens to fish. Once a spawning population starts routinely migrating toward a vertical profile during spawning seasons, the following breeding class will have to readjust if the platform is removed.

Do we just stand to lose prime fishing locations? Hardly. I believe the case can be made that we stand to lose our entire fishery or at least a major percentage of it over time.

According to Dr. Paul Sammarco, a marine scientist with the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, La., who when I voiced this concern to him said, “The platforms do act as great fishing spots with their local populations serving as the resource for recreational fisherman. But they also produce fish. Many of the fish that live on those platforms spawn eggs and sperm externally, and those eggs develop as plankton in the water column, drifting to settle on other platforms and reefs. Yes, I believe that removing platforms may well affect the larval supply for other parts of the Gulf.”

He continued, “One of the most important reasons for leaving the platforms in place is the geology. For thousands of years the Northern Gulf of Mexico was nothing but sediment – a soft bottom that stretched from Texas to Florida. There was no substrate or hard surfaces exposed to sunlight. Then in the 1940’s when the oil companies started drilling they created a new environment that had not existed since the end of the last major ice age.”

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When I spoke with Steve Kolian, an environmental scientist with the Louisiana Department of Environment Quality – who has spent 14 years of his own time and money trying to make people aware of this issue, he said, “Oil and gas platforms produce one of the most prolific ecosystems on the planet. 10,000 to 30,000 adult fish live around a single platform at any one time – an area half the size of a football field. Endangered species, corals, sponges, protected fish and crustaceans colonize the platforms’ submerged structure. Yet approximately 120 of these platforms were destroyed this year – killing thousands of fish, millions of invertebrates and forever removing 120 reef ecosystems from the Gulf.”

What does this mean in layman’s terms? It means that the platforms do not just attract fish – such as reef balls – instead they produce fish. Entire ecosystems live, reproduce and die on these platforms.

In fact, the Japanese government is spending billions of dollars to build offshore platforms in order to raise fish.

We on the other hand are forcing the oil companies to spend $300-$400 million dollars per year to destroy fish habitat!


Read Part II of Crisis in the Gulf.

Steve McNemar has been fishing the waters of South Louisiana for almost 50 years.
An award winning outdoor writer and radio broadcaster, he is a member of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, a nationally published outdoor writer and photographer and Co-Host of the radio show Hunt. Fish. Talk.
He is also the CEO of U.S. Impact, Inc located in Mandeville, La. He can be reached via email at steve@usimpactinc.com.

New “Buras High School Reef” Dedicated in Breton Sound

CCA Louisiana, Shell Oil Company, The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, The Barrier Island Restoration and Development Society (BIRDS) and Bertucci Contractors have begun construction on a new artificial reef in Breton Sound, to be called the Buras High School Reef. A visit to the construction site was held earlier today.

The reef is being built using recycled material taken from historic Buras High School, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and never re-opened. Now the school that was once filled with students will provide a home for schools of fish.

“Plaquemines Parish is so appreciative to CCA, Shell Oil, Wildlife and Fisheries, and BIRDS for working together on this great project,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. “The new Buras High School Reef will be a great new place to fish and a boost for Plaquemines businesses that depend on recreational fishing.”

Darren Angelo, owner of Delta Marina and a founding member of the CCA Plaquemines Chapter, agreed with Nungesser. “The marinas in South Plaquemines will certainly benefit from this new reef,” he said. “We expect that anglers will come to the area from all over to check out this new hot spot.”

The reef is located in an area well known to anglers, just north and east of California Point. Many of the area’s historically popular fishing holes have disappeared over recent years due to hurricanes and coastal erosion. According to NOAA’s Tim Osborn, this new reef should withstand the elements for many years to come.

“The size and make-up of this material should make the reef very resistant to erosion and weather,” said Osborn. “I would expect anglers to enjoy this reef for generations.”

The project was conceived by CCA Louisiana’s new Plaquemines Chapter, which was founded in 2010. Chapter leaders and volunteers have been integral throughout the planning process.

The Buras High School Reef is the 11th reef constructed by CCA over recent years and the fourth project to use recycled material. The Southshore Reef and the Kim and Dudley Vandenborre Reef were completed in Lake Pontchartrain in 2010 and 2011 respectively, using material from the Katrina damaged I-10 Twin Span Bridge. In July of 2012, CCA completed construction of the Brad Vincent Artificial Reef in Calcasieu Lake using recycled road rubble. CCA has immediate plans for additional projects in Vermilion Bay, Lake Pontchartrain and Terrebonne Bay.

Funding for the Buras High School Reef was provided by Shell Oil Company, CCA’s Building Conservation Trust, LDWF’s Artificial Reef Trust Fund, and BIRDS. Continuing support of CCA’s Artificial Reef Program is also provided by the Paul Candies Family.

“Having graduated from Buras High School myself, this project takes on special meaning for me,” says Shell’s Bryan Bergeron. “It was difficult to take when the school was damaged so badly by Katrina. Building this new reef out of the old high school somehow gives the place new life.”

“As always, CCA is proud to work with our wonderful partners in conservation to make this project possible,” said CCA’s John Walther. “The collaboration between private industry, local and state government and CCA has once again resulted in a victory for coastal habitat.”

After completion, mooring buoys placed around the perimeter of the site will mark the reef. Anglers will have the option to tie off to the specially designed buoys if they choose.

“If recent projects are any indication, we would expect this reef to begin supporting marine life shortly after deployment,” said CCA Louisiana CEO David Cresson. “It would not be surprising to hear reports of specks and reds being caught on the reef during Summer 2013.”

To view a video package from the dedication, go to youtu.be/4AN6J4EsCtU

CCA Louisiana is the largest marine resource conservation group of its kind in the state. With more than 30,000 members and volunteers in 24 local chapters, CCA has been active in state, national and international fisheries management issues since 1977. Visit www.CCALouisiana.com for more information.  

The Hunt for Reds in October

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By John A. Lopez, Ph.D
Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation saveourlake.org

Something is happening in Lake Pontchartrain, and I hesitate to describe what I suspect.

Lake Pontchartrain was once known as a bleak place to fish or recreate. When the signs went up closing the lake to swimming, it was confirmation of what many people had already concluded: Lake Pontchartrain was highly polluted, and if a fish dared to be in the lake, it would be only a lunatic that would consume it. The infamous Nick’s bar on Tulane Avenue (closed after Hurricane Katrina) once had a mixed-drink called Lake Pontchartrain that was a muddy-looking concoction that you might only drink on a dare. Fortunately, the pollution was not as bad as thought, although it was bad. More importantly the problems were not so impossible to address. When LPBF began its quixotic quest to clean Lake Pontchartrain, we immediately had partners everywhere who wanted to help. We still do, and we appreciate that support enormously. If it was up to LPBF alone, it would have been, and would still be, impossible to accomplish.

The Lake started to get better in the 90’s and, by the end of the decade, clams had recovered and record speckled trout were being caught. In the next decade, LPBF (with many friends) placed nine artificial reefs in Lake Pontchartrain. Also. our recreational and fishing map was released. Professional fishers, such as Dudley Vandenboore, Harry Hildebrand, Frank Davis, Don Dubuc, and others started talking about what they had known for a long time: The lake had fish, particularly speckled trout. Game on. We now have professional charter captains who make a living on recreational charters in the Lake. This was unimaginable 20 years ago. Dudley and the CCA also saw to the completion of two more reefs in 2011.

I suspect we all kind of know this Lake story through our own various experiences around the Lake, from driving the Causeway and seeing a beautiful color to the water, swimming, or jet skiing, or sailing on moonlight cruises. So what’s new?

In 2010 and 2011, there were enormous runs of redfish in St. Bernard Parish near Shell Beach. People were bank-fishing, kayak-fishing, and catching one redfish after the other. This past year, I have not heard of that redfish run happening, but what I have heard, from enough reliable sources to be suspicious, is that our lake is being invaded by bull reds. I have had reliable reports of schools of bull reds in eastern Lake Pontchartrain from two independent and reliable sources. I also witnessed a school of large fish from our high-rise office at the base of the Causeway Bridge at the south shore. With binoculars, I studied the feeding frenzy of a school of large fish. A week later a friend (who fishes a lot) confirmed that he saw the same school while driving the Causeway Bridge on the same day. He was sure they were redfish.

Recently, fishing from a pier on the north shore, I caught two nice reds (merely 4 pounds), which are not bull reds but still nice redfish for Lake Pontchartrain. BTW, I think of bull reds as fish often described in feet not pounds. I grew up here, and I never recall anyone ever describing schools of bull reds in Lake Pontchartrain. That happens in Chandeleur Sound or offshore, but not in the Lake! Yet there is anecdotal evidence that we may be seeing more and larger redfish in Lake Pontchartrain. If it’s true, why would it be?

The closure of the MRGO has changed the way water flows into Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding marshes. When the MRGO was open, the tide poured in and out of the MRGO. With that water, it carried shrimp and other small bait fish that tend to be carried by the tides. With the MRGO closed, all that bait fish and shrimp are forced to flow through the sounds, bayous, lagoons, etc., and when they do, they are passing through higher quality habitat. Could it be that the redfish simply are more naturally drawn into the Lake due to the more natural migration of bait fish through better habitat? Surely this is speculation. And you may be wondering from this observation, why no one that I mentioned has caught a bull red? One friend hooked one of the schooling fish and stripped out his “light tackle” that he used for big lake trout. Another was a biologist who spotted the fish without a fishing pole. For me, on the 20th floor of a high rise, and friend driving the Causeway Bridge,
casting was a challenge. I guess I should acknowledge that these mystery guests could be Jack Crevalles. However, I recommend that next time you’re in Lake Pontchartrain you bring your bull red tackle.

Disappearing Marsh Still Holds Abundant Redfish

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by John N. Felsher

From the deck of Sweetwater Marina, raised above the flood stage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the marshes still stretched as far as the eye could see, but more open water than I remembered shimmered in the sunlight.

Born just up the road near Reggio, I started fishing St. Bernard Parish with my father in the 1960s. Where unbroken marshes once stretched to the horizon, numerous shallow lakes punctuated with tiny grassy islands dominate the terrain beyond Bayou Terre aux Boeufs. Over the years, erosion, subsidence, canal building, saltwater intrusion and other factors broke apart the once endless marsh.

In the 1970s, Dad and I headed to Delacroix for a cast and blast nearly every weekend during duck season. We hunted ducks in the afternoon and the next morning. At night, we slept in an 18-foot homemade wooden boat. We fished the next afternoon, catching redfish without limits in those days.

Unlike most people at the time, Dad preferred redfish to trout. He used 50-pound-test black Dacron line on a Penn 309 attached to a broomstick rod, fishing two shrimp at a time on the bottom with a large sinker. One night, we anchored in the middle of a bayou flowing into Bay Shallow, now more an open lake than a channel. After Dad went to sleep in a cabin he built to accommodate one person just his size, my friend Eric Holbrook and I stayed up to fish. A huge school of redfish moved through the bayou that night. We caught reds two at a time until we both realized that we needed to “wake up” in less than an hour to go hunting.

By that time, only four unused shrimp remained with an entire fishing day ahead of us. Encouraged by our catch, Dad forgot about hunting. As Eric and I paddled our pirogues to the duck ponds, my elated father couldn’t wait to tempt his favorite species with his favorite method without moving the boat. On the first cast, he landed two keepers. On the second cast, he added two more, clearly anticipating one of his best fishing trips ever! Then, he discovered the empty bait bag! Across the marsh, I thought I heard an angry rumble that sounded like some vocabulary Dad picked up in the Navy as the Japanese shot at him during World War II.

Decades later, redfish still roam what’s left of these marshes, perhaps in bigger numbers and certainly large sizes than decades ago. Hoping to lessen marsh losses, the state opened a freshwater diversion project at Caernarvon in 1991 to pump Mississippi River water into brackish marshes near Delacroix. That freshened flow changed the habitat, making it more like the original delta marsh centuries ago. In the sweetened water, largemouth bass now feed side by side with redfish. Both gorge themselves on abundant prey from marine and aquatic environments, frequently striking the same lures.
“In my opinion, Delacroix is the second best place in Louisiana to catch redfish, second only to Venice,” said Capt. Jack Payne, owner of Sweetwater Marina. “The river diversion really changed fishing in Delacroix — for the better! With the fresh water coming from the Mississippi River, it’s more like Venice now. In the fresher water, redfish have so much more to eat and more variety to eat. That’s why redfish get so much fatter in Delacroix than at other places in Louisiana.”

Sarah Rodrigue, Bruno Prager and I joined Captain Jack on a trip to my old haunts, the first time I fished Delacroix since before Katrina hit. We stopped near Lake Cuatro Caballo, or Four Horse Lake, not far from where we experienced that amazing redfish run 35 years ago.

Where once I could almost navigate blindfolded at night in the fog, in the days before GPS help, I recognized few
landmarks. I did remember the fishing. On the first cast, I connected with a flounder that smashed an Egret Lures Bayou Spin spinnerbait tipped with a Stanley Wedgetail dragged across a point. We added several redfish and speckled trout to our catch before the day ended. Bruno even caught a bass, giving us a four-species Delacroix Slam.

Although disappearing, the marshes between Lake Borgne and the Mississippi River still offer anglers some of the best redfish habitat in North America. Just about any weedy shoreline might hold redfish. Some better places to toss baits include Lake Coquille, Lake Calabasse, Oak River, Lake Batola, Bakers Bay, Pointe Fienne Bay, Lake Fausan, Round Lake and Four-Horse Lake. As the season progresses, trout typically move out toward the bays. Some good places to catch bull reds and big trout include Lake Eloi, Black Bay, Lake Fortuna, Lake Campo, Bay Gardine, Lake Robin and Oak River Bay.

“The two best times to fish Delacroix are in the spring and fall,” Payne advised. “In May, we catch a bunch of 3- to 5-pound trout around islands in the bays. My biggest trout weighed about 6.5 pounds. From Sweetwater Marina to the bays, it’s a 20-mile run.”

A full-service facility with the emphasis on service, Sweetwater Marina opened in April 2010. Payne offers a backdown ramp, live bait, boat storage, lodging and even three meals a day for charter customers. He plans to open a deli so people won’t need to drive 18 miles up the road to eat.

“We pride ourselves on providing better service than other facilities in Louisiana,” Payne said. “I’ve been to many other marinas and I know how some of them treat their customers. When I opened this marina, I promised myself that I would go above and beyond what others do to treat our customers right. People really appreciate that extra effort. If customers request it, we help launch their boats. We back them down so they just need to get in their boats and head off into the marshes to fish while we park their vehicles.”

To book guided fishing trips with Payne or obtain more information about Sweetwater Marina, see www.Delacroixfishing. com or call (504) 342-2368.