The Senate transportation bill passed on March 8 includes as an amendment the RESTORE Act, an important measure that would bolster Gulf restoration efforts by directing 80 percent of Clean Water Act fines paid by BP to Gulf states. As the House deliberates the bill before a March 31 deadline, the fate of coastal Louisiana hangs in the balance. House passage of a transportation bill that includes the RESTORE Act would be a major victory for sportsmen-conservationists and stakeholders in southern Louisiana, including Capt. Ryan Lambert.
A southern Louisiana native, Lambert owns two lodges and has been guiding fishing and duck hunting trips in the area for more than 30 years. Lambert is very active in Gulf restoration efforts and has testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While the one-two punch of Hurricane Katrina (which left 24 feet of standing water in his lodge and put him out of business for nine months) and the oil spill devastated him on a personal level, Lambert is more concerned about wetland loss.
Levies and channelization built in the Gulf region after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 has had a two-pronged negative effect on the Delta ecosystem. First, sediment no longer is able to collect around the mouth of the Mississippi, and, second, salt water is encroaching on exclusively freshwater ecosystems.
Channelization near the mouth of the Mississippi River increases the velocity at which the river enters the Gulf. As a result, sediment from spring flooding events that would normally collect in the marshes to give them structure now goes straight out into the Gulf. The combination of rising sea levels and a lack of marsh structure has lead to the vast and widespread disappearance of wetlands near the mouth of the Mississippi.
Lambert: “The land is subsiding. It’s sinking. And when it does so, there is nothing to replenish it like in years past. As [saltwater] intrudes into the fresh water, it kills trees and freshwater animals, and the soil just gets washed out.”
The Mississippi River Delta is losing its wetlands at a frightening rate – a football field every hour.
“Ninety-nine percent of the land and marshes in my area on the west side of the Mississippi River are gone. This is the worst erosion in the United States, maybe North America. It used to be 6.5 miles of marsh between me and the Gulf. Now there’s none. I could point my boat that way and never touch a piece of grass. It’s sickening to me because I know what that land produced. Even when I ride around near marshes that were my old stomping grounds growing up, it is so disheartening because now it’s all open water. It’s like a dagger in my heart when I see it.”
A number of shipping canals and channels cut directly through the marsh systems, allowing salt water to seep in, killing vegetation and disrupting the salinity balance that many species need to survive.
“It’s only a matter of time before the whole marsh system collapses. I think about my area and about all the wildlife we’ve lost. These were rich trapping grounds: otter, muskrat, mink, raccoon, deer, rabbits and millions of acres of habitat for waterfowl. All that’s gone. Where did those animals go? We lost all that and nobody says anything. If that happened somewhere else in the country or in the world, they would have more people there trying to fix it. I don’t understand why this never gets any attention. We lost millions and millions of furbearing animals and nobody’s said a word.”
TRCP: How much has the spill cost you and your business monetarily, and how much has BP paid you for your losses?
“So far its cost me over $2 million, and so far I’ve gotten $155,000 from BP. It’s gonna cost for a long time.”
TRCP: What was worse; the spill or Hurricane Katrina?
“Oh, the spill by far. Because I had to stay open to have a claim. So I stayed open all year with no business and kept my lodge open and paid my employees and all my cooks. You are legally obligated to mitigate your loss. If I just closed the door and didn’t wanna go fishing, I would have no claim. So I lost an additional $160,000 keeping my lodge open and paying my employees for no reason. I worked harder for less money than I ever did in my life.”
TRCP: How was your duck season this year, and how has the fishing been?
“My duck season was very, very good. There hasn’t been a speckled trout to speak of since last May. They are just depleted and going down, down, down. So I turned all my attention to my duck hunting operation. We were booked every day and killed 4,600 ducks, and it was just fabulous. But after that, we are dead in the water because there are no fish. Historically, my guides could go out and catch 1,000 speckled trout on a day with no wind. Ten boats would catch between 800 and 1,000 fish. Now we’re not catching any.”
TRCP: What would it mean for the Gulf if RESTORE were to pass?
“It’s no different than if you’re holding a person down and choking them and right before they die, you pull your hand off their throat. Boom! Instantly, they come back to life. I think it would do the same thing for Louisiana.”
Learn more about Vanishing Paradise, a coalition of more than five hundred businesses and organizations working to restore the delta by reconnecting the Mississippi River with its wetlands.