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Off the southeast coast of Louisiana, just over three kilometers north of where Barataria Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, sits a blip of land called Queen Bess Island. Despite losing nearly 90 percent of its original footprint since the 1950s due to erosion and hurricanes, Queen Bess provides habitat for more than 60 bird species, about 10 of which are nesting colonial waterbirds, including royal terns, tricolored herons, and great egrets. But it’s Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, that makes Queen Bess special. The island, along with two others, supports 70 percent of the brown pelican population in the state; yet without recent restoration efforts, the nesting habitat would have disappeared completely.
Using fines from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which decimated millions of creatures in coastal Louisiana more than 10 years ago, the state has been rebuilding barrier islands, starting with Queen Bess Island. In September 2019, and over the course of that winter, workers replenished Queen Bess with roughly 115,000 cubic meters of sand dredged from the Mississippi River. The barrier island restoration work has a human-impact focus—the primary intent is to protect the shoreline for future generations of Louisianans—but helps stabilize breeding habitats for the brown pelican in the process. On Queen Bess, now close to its original size of nearly 15 hectares, conservation biologists are watching to see how pelicans will respond to the altered island.
The future of the Mississippi River Delta and coastal Louisiana as a whole is still far from being on solid ground. A football field–sized portion of wetland vanishes into open water every 100 minutes, according to Restore the Mississippi River Delta coalition. Louisiana’s wetlands serve as a natural storm buffer; a nursery for fish; habitat for other wildlife; and a sponge for nutrients, sediments, and contaminants. The straitjacketing of the lower Mississippi River with huge levees designed to protect communities from flooding has been one of the primary causes of the land loss. Slowly but surely, by and by, the Mississippi waters that brought new earth for thousands of years were choked off, and the wetlands below no longer received essential land-building sediment from the river. Scientists like Clint Willson at Louisiana State University’s Center for River Studies are ready to find solutions to Louisiana’s disappearing coast. Inside the center is one of the largest movable bed physical models in the world, able to replicate the river’s flow, water levels, and sediment transports. It can simulate one year of the Mississippi River in one hour.
Over the past 80 years, Louisiana lost an area roughly the size of Delaware. This grim reality keeps Willson busy helping state and federal agencies develop plans for coastal restoration and protection. The land loss cannot be stopped, but can it be slowed? And will the pelicans thrive on their restored island, giving hope to the millions of people living on Louisiana’s coastline who are likewise in danger of being displaced?
Producers/Directors/Editors: Ryan Jones and Alyson Larson
Camera operators: Long Duong, Ryan Jones, Alyson Larson
Hakai Magazine producer: Katrina Pyne
Additional footage: Fenstermaker and LDWF
Special thanks: Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and LSU Center for River Studies