A Cat On Its Ninth Life

Roseate Spoonbills

One of the most spectacular birds in the world, the Roseate Spoonbill, calls the disappearing Cat Islands home - at least for now.

The saying goes, a cat has nine lives, but we only ever see one, to us always the last.  In Louisiana’s Barataria Bay we are watching a cat die its ninth life – what’s harder still, we saw all eight before it, and stood callously by, watching.  This death has been senseless.

Last week I floated along helplessly watching.  I felt like the photos I was taking will not save it, only serve as part of a near future obituary.

This Cat is an island.  Actually no longer a single island, but a tattered strand of almost-islands.  The once single island has become so ragged our boat captain, Ron, who has been fishing and guiding these waters for a quarter century, just calls these marshy patches the Cat Islands, plural; even the nautical charts can’t keep up with this disappearing act.

A century ago Cat Islands was a single feisty feline living in Barataria Bay; The Bay was a wetland world of mangroves and brackish water marshes, islands of cypress and twisting bayous, exuberant with life.  Cat Islands was part of a great stretch of wetlands that fanned out across the south of Louisiana like a giant 1.5 million-acre skirt.  Today that skirt is tattered and torn, and fraying further with each high tide and passing storm.

Barataria Bay was a wild place back then.  At the back of the Bay were watery forests of cypress trees, some believed to be hundreds, if not thousands of years old, protected from the saline Gulf by acres of maze-like bayou.  People thrived here as well, shrimp-towns and Native American settlements alive with activity in the Bay, which is at the heart of a delta coast formed 3,000 years ago.  Along Barataria’s leading edge the Mississippi River had deposited enough silt to create islands which barriered the marshes like Cat from storm and tides.  Today Grand Terre and Grand Isle are Barataria’s loan sentries standing vigil against the hurricanes, oil and other intruders from the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the damming of Bayou Lafourche in 1904 cut off a steady supply of fresh water and nutrients, Barataria Bay marshes have begun a steady declined, rapidly accelerating over the past fifty years.  The choking of the Mississippi River in the 1930’s by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in the aftermath of the Great 1927 flood further accelerated marsh loss by restricting critical river sediments from spreading west along the coast and stemming the Gulf encroachment.

oil and gas channels in bayou

Over 4,000 miles of channels have been sliced through the Louisiana bayous to expedite access to and delivery of oil and gas - one half of a deadly duo killing America's aquatic heartlands. Once cut a channel tends to double its width every fourteen years - thin lines become massive allies welcoming the deadly saltwater and killing the marsh, in turn eroding sediments and converting land to lakes of brine.

But that was only half of a double-blow that literally cut the roots right out from under places like the Cat Islands.  The oil and gas industry has had a backdoor monopoly on the Louisiana bayou.  It was given a regulatory ‘Get out of jail free card’ to slice and dice the bayou without limits.  They passed ‘Go’ and gutted the Gulf wetlands with over 4,000 miles of channels to expedite access to and delivery of oil and gas.  As a result miles of marsh, mangrove, mudflats, sand ridges and cypress forest have been lost to the encroaching salt water of the Gulf.  A Gulf that used the arrow straight channels like express routes to poison the freshwater marsh.  It’s a familiar story in coastal Louisiana, where 2,000 square miles of wetlands have been lost since the 1930s.  Barataria Bay and next door neighbor Terrebonne Bay have suffered the worst, accounting for 85% of Louisiana’s coastal land loss, including Cat Islands.

gas facility in Louisiana bayou

Virtually limitless regulation, over decades of abuse have teamed with the choking of Mississippi River sediment flow to destroy one of the greatest wetlands on earth. Oil and gas infrastructure in the Louisiana bayou south of Houma.

The Gulf Coast of Louisiana has always been in a delicate dance with the sea.  A Google Earth view of the coast illustrates where, in their turn, each has led and each has followed, respectfully, over that past several thousand years.  But over the last century politics and petroleum have conspired to turn the vast wetlands of Louisiana into a watery dance floor all the Gulf’s.  The Cat Islands are on their last dance.

The marshes are an illusion of land, never so clear as on the radar screen aboard Capt. Ron’s boat.  For fifteen minutes we surfed over what appeared golden-brown solid terre firma on the chart, a.k.a. land.  In reality there was only water.  Shallow salty water only a few feet deep, the perfect welcoming mat for a category-rated hurricane to come waltzing in, then on into New Orleans, Baton Rouge or Lafayette, not to mention the hundreds of bayou towns along the way.  We know it will happen, it has happened, named most recently Rita, Ivan and Katrina.  It will happen again.

Near the final fragment of what use to be an island of marsh and mangroves we approached a shallow wafer of grasses virtually level with the surrounding waters.  I glanced over at the chart on the radar and was stunned.  The small black triangle representing us, our boat, was beached.  We were not only suppose to be beached on land, we were actually supposed to be high and dry on a sizable chunk of land.

Cat Islands, Barataria Bay

Looking out on what remains of a fragment of Cat Islands in Barataria Bay despite wealth of land assumed by the radar.

Cat Islands, Barataria Bay

Cat Islands, in Barataria Bay - the watery world of make believe realities. The red arrow points to the black triangle - our boat - and the red blob outlines all that exists of the land on the screen.

Since I began working on the BP oil disaster here in the Gulf, some 9 months ago, over 20 square miles of the coastal wetlands in Louisiana have simply vanished – poof! – gone for eternity!!  Imagine another island that size disappearing, say Manhattan (a.k.a. New York City)?  How much would we be spending to save it?

Brown Pelicans, Cat Islands, LA

Refusing to accept the inevitable - Brown Pelicans cling to the last few inches of what remains of a mangrove marsh in the disintegrating Cat Islands, Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

When Ret. Commander Tad Allen and President Barak Obama said last spring the environmental disaster in the Gulf was equivalent to war on our shores they were clueless that the frontline of that war was washing away beneath their feet as they spoke. The oil coming ashore they and the nation were so worried about was merely a battle, the real war has been going on for decades.  We have been losing that war.

“If a foreign enemy were taking away twenty-five square miles of American soil from us every year—year after year—just taking it away from this nation and not giving it back, we would certainly go to war to stop it, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?” – from Bayou Farewell

If you want to feel, not just see, what we are losing, read Bayou Farewell, author Mike Tidwell’s personal, poignant journey into the bayous and back roads of our national loss.  A tale of a nation too blind to see its folly, too proud to admit its faults, to greedy to change the future.  We are starving and carving up the greatest wetlands in North America: home to enormous riches; cultural, economic and wild.

Last years BP oil disaster spread millions of gallons of reddish copper crude into the marshes of Barataria Bay, the rookeries of the Cat Islands group, low and unprotected were some of the worst polluted.  While BP oil can not be blamed for the death of the bayou, the oil disaster, and the ‘cleanup effort’ of burning the marshes, only exacerbated and accelerated its demise.

burnt oil marsh in Bay Jimmy

BP oiled marsh in Bay Jimmy burnt to "cleanup" the problem - excelling erosion by 20-30 feet along the marsh edge.

It’s an oddly fatal experience to watch the world disappear before your eyes.  To see birds attempt to construct nests in dead and dying mangroves that exist only for the generation of chicks they are currently raising.

A lingering line from Bayou Farewell is sobering.  It haunts my travels away from this magical wetlands, a place I have come to love; I feel like a traveler returning to a tragic, ultimately doomed affair. “If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now,” Tidwell writes, “come to Louisiana today. The future really is here.”


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