A Taste of the Nine-Day Gulf Red Snapper Season

With the abundance of fish these anglers experienced, why can’t we fix the access issues?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for red snapper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

My apologies to Charles Dickens.

It is the best of times because there are so many snapper out there. Oil rigs, reefs, sunken shrimp boats, lost shipping containers, pipeline stems, concrete rubble, natural drop-offs, humps, and buoy chains all hold fish. As long as a structure is in 50 feet of water, it’s going to be covered in snapper, and this holds true across most of the Gulf.

From my favorite port of Grand Isle, La., the options for catching snapper start at a set of oil rigs named the Grand Isle 20 Block, which is clearly visible from the beach. If, by some strange chance, the snapper on the 20 Block aren’t interested, a quick three-mile jump to the 30 block and then the West Delta 70 block gives snapper anglers additional options in waters up to 140 feet deep.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

The fishing can be remarkable. Throw a handful of chum over one of these wrecks or reefs and prepare for action. Anglers can  slow-crank a snapper up from 50 feet and sometimes the entire school will follow, quickly turning the green water red. Without fail fish on the surface will aggressively attack anything that moves or looks like food.

Short of catching speckled trout all day on topwater baits or watching a billfish tail walk, it’s as good as fishing gets.

Anglers should be celebrating this abundance.

Instead, they find themselves embroiled in the most contentious battle in federal fisheries management, a chaotic approach often driven by lawsuits against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shouting matches among user groups.

Abundance usually means more access to the resource, or at least consistent regulations, in any other fish and game management scenario. In red snapper management, abundance combined with error-prone data collection on harvest levels and stock sizes has translated to less access for sportsmen.

More fish means they are easier to catch, but the larger population also brings more regulations. Bigger fish means the poundage-based quota required by federal law is being reached much quicker. Inability to accurately account for the harvest of bigger fish from a larger population has led to, in part, this year’s nine-day red snapper season in the Gulf’s federal waters. Ironically, 10 years ago, when the snapper population was estimated to be much smaller, the federal-water snapper season was 194 days.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

Gulf states have stepped in to provide more consistent access to waters they control, up to nine miles from shore. But, for most Gulf ports, the 50-foot depths generally needed to find red snapper lie beyond that nine-mile boundary. State officials are also working with anglers to improve access and data collection. But, as long as current federal law and management apply, 95 percent of the Gulf will remain off-limits to recreational snapper harvest for at least 11 months of the year.

TRCP and its sportfishing partners—the Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association, Center for Coastal Conservation, and others—have been working with policy-makers to find a better way.

The constant battle at the Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council and the political debate over snapper management often overshadow how much fun it is to catch these fish. It dampens the appetite of anglers who love snapper, especially when it’s cooked over a charcoal pit, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

This year, rough seas and thunderstorms prevented most anglers from getting to snapper waters during the June 1-9 federal season. NOAA gave anglers two additional days to compensate for Tropical Storm Colin, but the other lost days were victims of the fickle derby system that federal management has created.

Keep America Fishing leaders Gary Jennings and Glenn Hughes joined me and Captain Frank Dreher on Grand Isle on June 8 for two days of snapper fishing. The trip was set up to give us a chance to forget about snapper politics and focus on fishing. The plan was to take Dreher’s 24-foot bay boat out of Grand Isle on day one then slide west to Terrebonne Parish on day two for a ride on a 33 Contender with Tony Fontenot and the crew from Castin’ Cajun, a popular regional TV show.

Flat seas and sharks greeted us early June 8. A couple of short stops at rigs in 50 to 70 feet of water showed schools of snapper on the sounder, but blacktips and jack crevalle were quicker to the baits. At our third spot, we found a school of 5- to 10-pound snapper and the action was non-stop for more than an hour while the placid surface was quickly slopped up by a sneaky 10- to 15-knot northeast wind.

A 3-foot chop turned a half-hour joy ride on the way out into a 90-minute, spray-soaked pounding on the ride home. We quickly forgot about it that evening over grilled snapper filets and Abita Amber beer.

On day two, the seas were sloppier, but the 33-foot vessel cut down on the pounding and the soaking—a little. But the 20-mile ride out of Cocodrie to a wrecked boat in 55 feet of water was worth it: We enjoyed snapper fishing unparalleled by any I have experienced in more than three decades of venturing off Louisiana’s coast. The emerald-green waters were spotted with red all morning, as snapper schools ascended to the surface and ferociously attacked any bait.

Even before boat owner David Prevost positioned us over the wreck, I reeled in an 8-pound snapper that crushed a chunky, soft-plastic grub intended for an aggressive cobia cruising above the structure. Thirty or more snapper followed that first fish and soon multiple hook-ups marked the morning. More than once, I picked out a fish I wanted to catch, pitched my bait, and watched it eat. Fishing does not get better.

Our two days on the Gulf during the brief window provided by federal managers reinforced two things I already knew: Red snapper are abundant, and a federal system fraught with incessant political battles, insufficient data, and misguided management approaches keep anglers from that abundance.

There’s no reason to believe we can’t fix the access and enjoy the abundance.

Gulf Snapper Anglers See Red, Experts Look To Improve Angling Opportunity

Constructive solutions the key to improved fisheries management and more certainty for recreational fishermen

Duck hunters in Louisiana have known for a month their season will begin in early November and last for 60 days. For the last 20 years, duck seasons in the Bayou State have consistently started either the first or second weekend in November, ended in late January, with a bag limit of six ducks.

Coastal anglers across Gulf States and beyond who pursue popular sportfish like speckled trout and redfish have year-round seasons and can take advantage of good weather and time off from work to catch a few fish and even take a couple home for dinner – all while maintaining healthy, sustainable stocks.

Image courtesy of Amanda Nalley/Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Consistency and certainty is vital to duck hunters, anglers, and the businesses that support those activities. However, achieving that level of certainty enjoyed in waterfowling, other hunting, and in state-based fisheries management has proven to be very difficult to maintain at the federal level where conservation measures required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act have forced managers to shorten fishing seasons for many popular reef fish such as red snapper and grouper. This problem has been compounded by imprecise data collection methods even despite recovering populations and stock sizes at record levels for many of these species.

In many cases, management approaches for these popular fish were established to allow a maximum amount of commercial harvest while maintaining barely sustainable stocks. Recreational fishing has been forced into the same management structure despite obvious differences in culture and approach to the resource by commercial and recreational fishermen.

The 2014 report “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries” released by the TRCP and the foremost angling advocacy and conservation organizations in America made six recommendations to improve federal fisheries management for recreational fishing, including “adopting a revised approach to saltwater recreational fisheries management.”

These groups will take that recommendation a step further over the next two months by convening workshops comprised of experts in fisheries management, biology, and policy at the state and federal level as well as recreational fishing advocacy groups and conservation organizations. They will all discuss what works well in fish and game management, where the deficiencies are in achieving certainty in federal management, and how better data collection efforts and alternative approaches to current federal management can be incorporated into laws and policies that govern recreational fishing.

This is not an effort to simply launch attacks on current federal approaches and those responsible for their implementation. It is a cooperative effort by the TRCP, the American Sportfishing Association and other concerned sportfishing and conservation groups to try to constructively address management shortcomings that even NOAA Fisheries officials recognize as well.

Image courtesy of Amanda Nalley/Florida Fish and Wildlife.

The first workshop was held May 17-18 in Tampa, Fla. and facilitated by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Fisheries Management Director Jessica McCawley and Deputy Director Jim Estes. Representatives from NOAA Fisheries gave overviews of current federal management policies and data collection efforts. This was closely examined and compared with state inland and coastal fisheries management approaches and to the cooperative effort by state and federal waterfowl biologists to balance conservation and access to duck and goose hunting. The workshop will also feature efforts by states like Louisiana and Florida to collect more accurate data on angler harvest in federal and state waters.

The second workshop will be in Washington, DC in June and will tackle how the management approaches discussed in the first meeting can be used to improve federal management through policy recommendations and legislative changes. Policy experts from the recreational fishing and conservation community will participate in the discussion alongside congressional staff who are working to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act and advance other fisheries management legislation.

The goal at the end of this process is to have a concise set of recommendations that can help Congress, state and federal fisheries managers, and anglers work together toward common goals of achieving long-term fisheries conservation and sustainability. By doing so in a constructive and collaborative way, we can allow the economy and the culture of recreational fishing to thrive as fish stocks across our coasts continue to grow larger and healthier.

Official Status of BP Settlement Means Conservation Can Finally Roll On

A few signatures kick off the next phase of oil spill recovery that could revive long-term habitat health in the Gulf

Image courtesy of Louisiana GOHSEP.

BP and a federal judge have finally made it official—the historic settlement between the states, the federal government, and BP has been signed. Now, the Gulf of Mexico’s fish, wildlife, and habitat—not to mention the communities that depend on outdoor recreation dollars—can move forward in the ongoing process of repairing damage caused by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

The details of the settlement weren’t breaking news by the time U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier made the consent decree official with the stroke of a pen on April 4. In fact, many of the particulars, including the $20.8-billion total penalty, were released to the public after all parties agreed in principle last October.

This doesn’t mean that we’ll be breaking ground on ecosystem-scale restoration projects tomorrow. After all, BP has more than 15 years to pay in full. It does, however, mark another important milestone in a recovery effort large enough in scale that it could repair the damage caused by the spill as well as ongoing habitat losses and water quality impairments that threaten the long-term health of the Gulf.

The agreement also means that the veil can be lifted on the volumes of data collected by state and federal agencies intensively studying the adverse effects of the oil on fish, birds, turtles, marine mammals, and thousands of plants, crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates that play a crucial role in the intricate Gulf ecosystem. Gag orders during ongoing negotiations prevented the sharing of most of that information with the public, which frustrated journalists, conservationists, sportsmen, and anyone else wondering about the true toll of the nation’s worst environmental disaster. Once that information is made public, we can better engage in and advocate for the projects that best address the damages.

Image courtesy of State of Louisiana.

If you’re interested in the nitty gritty details, BP will pay $5.5 billion in Clean Water Act penalties, 80 percent of which will go to economic and ecosystem restoration projects across the Gulf, thanks to the Restore Act signed into law in 2012. More than $8 billion will be paid in Natural Resource Damage Assessment fines to be used on projects that directly address the damage to creatures, habitats, and the users whose access to the resources was, and in some cases continues to be, disrupted by the spill. And, BP also owes states and local governments nearly $6 billion to make up for lost revenues.

The TRCP and its sportfishing and habitat conservation partners have been working diligently with hunters, anglers, policy-makers, the media, and elected officials across the region for the last five years to help ensure that Gulf fish and fishermen are made a priority throughout the restoration effort. This group has formally recommended projects and initiatives that improve habitat, increase and improve fisheries research and data collection, and improve access for anglers. Many of those recommendations have been incorporated into projects already selected to receive funding.

Image courtesy of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

Considering that recreational fishing contributes more than $10 billion annually to the region’s economy and supports nearly 100,000 jobs in Gulf states, investing in projects that improve angling opportunities ensures the viability of coastal communities from Brownsville, Texas, to Key West, Fla. But, the only way those investments are made wisely is if anglers across the Gulf and throughout the nation continue to insist that restoration dollars make it to the habitat and fish. We can’t let this game-changing settlement get eaten up by legislative pet-projects, state budget band-aids, and bureaucratic boondoggles.

Anglers also need to keep a close eye on projects and initiatives that aim to limit or prevent fishing opportunities. The net result of this lengthy restoration and recovery effort should be more quality chances to hunt and fish, not fewer.

As the sixth anniversary of the spill approaches, the settlement’s approval is reason to be thankful that the funds needed to address damages and make the Gulf a better place won’t be tied up in a decade-long legal battle. However, the difficult task of ensuring that penalties have lasting, positive effects on the region’s natural resources and communities is just beginning.

If you want to make sure we continue this important work in the Gulf, consider donating to the TRCP.

Louisiana Biologists Are Tracking Potential Monsters in the Depths of Lake Pontchartrain

How telemetry tag data could improve the odds of redfish and trout reaching trophy size 

Ashley Ferguson may not be a fish surgeon, but she’s become pretty handy with a scalpel and sutures over the last four years. Ferguson is one of a half-dozen fisheries biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who implant telemetry tags in redfish, speckled trout, sharks, and—hopefully—tarpon in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

Each tag sends a unique signal in the form of a “ping” to a series of yellow buoys anchored in strategic locations throughout Louisiana’s largest brackish-water lake. Analysis of data from the buoys is helping biologists better understand how fish use different types of habitat and react to changes in temperature, forage, and salinity.

“We have a buoy on every artificial reef, on each of the major bridges, and in the passes leading into and out of the lake,” says Ferguson. “If one of our tagged fish swims within 500 yards of a buoy, we can download the information and establish a pattern of where those fish are moving—and why.”

The study was launched in 2012 as a cooperative effort between Louisiana State University and the department, but it has been run by Wildlife and Fisheries in the last two years, thanks to grants from the angler-driven Sport Fish Restoration Fund.

Avid Lake Pontchartrain anglers are in on the project in a hands-on way, as well. For three to four days each year, anglers aim to catch trout that are longer than 18 inches and redfish that are longer than 21 inches and keep them in their live wells for the journey to the Percy Viosca, Jr., a converted aging shrimp boat where fish are held in oxygenated tanks.

That’s where Ferguson and her team get to work cutting and stitching.

Once a telemetry beacon is inserted, the fish’s backs are marked with a light blue tag to help anglers recognize them as part of the study so they can be released. From the launch of the project through the end of 2015, the team tagged 244 trout, 64 redfish and 18 bull sharks.

On a rare windless day in early January, I joined biologists and a handful of anglers on Lake Pontchartrain to add to the trout and redfish totals. Gulls diving on hand-sized white shrimp pointed to the location of huge schools of trout and redfish along the south shore. By noon, more than 20 new tags were pinging silently from stomach cavities.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

Biologists were particularly interested in capitalizing on the ideal fishing weather because of the changes coming to Lake Pontchartrain this winter and spring. Just 48 hours after the fish were tagged, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway, a relief valve that directs sediment-laden flood waters from the Mississippi River into the lake when river levels threaten to overtop levees in New Orleans. Bonnet Carre’s gates only open about once a decade, but this year’s opening comes just five years after record flooding that forced the opening of spillways throughout the Mississippi River Basin.

“This year is the first time since we started the study when we’ve had a spillway opening, and we want to see where the fish go, if they leave, and how long it takes them to come back,” says biologist and fish tagger Craig Gothreaux. “Usually, a spillway opening causes a temporary displacement, and the saltwater fish return when salinities come back up a couple of months after the gates are closed. But, do the redfish behave differently than the trout? Does opening the spillway this early in the year have an effect because the water is colder? Hopefully we can figure that out by looking at what we get from the tags.”

What biologists have figured out, spillway open or not, is that many of the area’s renowned trophy trout leave the lake in early June to spawn in the saltier adjacent waters of Mississippi Sound and Breton Sound. Buoys in the passes leading to and from the lake light up again in early fall as trout return to feast on annual crops of white shrimp and menhaden—which get even larger after a spillway opening.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

“If they leave the lake or just stay here and find the pockets of salty water, we’ll be able to read the buoy data and know,” Ferguson says. “Even if they go to Mississippi or Alabama by chance, we’ll know because researchers there use the same equipment and each tag sends a unique signal.”

Ferguson adds that the data shared among Gulf States is helping track other species, like the endangered Gulf Sturgeon, and will allow for an expansion of tagging efforts across the region on fish like red snapper, grouper, and even highly-migratory king mackerel and tuna.

The TRCP and its conservation partners have recommended expanding on projects like Louisiana’s telemetry tagging effort, which will be essential to the long-term monitoring of fish stocks in the wake of the 2010 oil spill. The data collected will help biologists establish baseline information vital to understanding how future disasters and weather events affect fisheries. The tagging efforts also give anglers an opportunity to be more involved in helping scientists gather important information—consider it a normal day of fishing with a little biology lab thrown in.

Want a peek at the travel routes of these fish? Click here.

To learn more about the TRCP’s work in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, visit our website: trcp.org

This post originally appeared on Costa’s Watery Rave blog

Ten Years After Katrina: Are We Still Waiting to Safeguard Our Coastline?

My dad and I spent the morning of August 28, 2005, tacking up plywood to cover the windows of his house in Baton Rouge. It’s a routine part of preparing for any hurricane, the same way you look for anything the wind can turn into a missile and take it inside.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

Dad lived through Hurricanes Betsy and Camille in New Orleans in the 1960s, and we both watched Hurricane Andrew churn and chew through central Louisiana in 1992. We both suspected Katrina would be worse.

All that work readying the house seemed a waste the next day, when Katrina’s winds pushed an 80-foot-tall oak tree right across the roof, allowing torrents of rain to pour in. The feelings of grief, disgust, and helplessness at the sight of that destruction were nothing compared to what my dad felt when he stepped out of a boat onto the roof of my grandmother’s house in New Orleans four days later.

Thankfully my grandmother was safe. Far too many were not. She never returned to the house my grandfather built. It was just a mile or so from Lake Pontchartrain and a couple blocks from the London Avenue Canal. Like other homes on Pasteur Boulevard and all across New Orleans, her house remains empty a decade later, still wearing the watermarks imprinted upon the bricks and stucco, a reminder of the failed federal levee system that turned the city into Lake Pontchartrain’s backwater.

Nearly everyone in south Louisiana and Mississippi has a Katrina story. If they don’t, they have a story about Rita, the oft forgotten storm that brought wind and surge equal to Katrina’s into southwest Louisiana just a month later. I didn’t lose my house. Many of my family members lost their homes, and the memories and possessions that went with them, but they didn’t lose their lives. The struggles of living in Baton Rouge, where the population swelled by 100,000 overnight, even without electricity, paled in comparison to what was unfolding in New Orleans, Lafitte, St. Bernard Parish, Slidell, and Biloxi.

The very least that my roommate and I could do to help was to welcome strangers into our home for a couple of nights. So, we hosted a father and young son who had nowhere else to go. We delivered food and clothes to shelters and helped elderly neighbors clean debris from their yards. We did anything we could to help in a time of such overwhelming helplessness.

Fishing is never far from my mind, but it was hard to even envision the pleasure of heading to the coast amid such chaos. The reality was that places I had fished just days before the storm made landfall, like Grand Isle, Shell Beach, Slidell and Lafitte, were flattened. Roads were broken to pieces, covered in boats, houses, trees, and anything else the storm shook loose. No tackle shops were open. No marinas. Camps and houses were ripped apart. Grocery stores and gas stations had been pushed off their foundations. Bridges were completely washed out.

Friends who made their living as fishing guides lost their businesses overnight. Other friends who sold live bait and owned boat launches had nothing left but the slabs their bait tanks once rested on. Bayous and canals were choked with debris and sediment, making many impassable.

My first post-Katrina fishing trip was in mid-October to Lake Pontchartrain. The fishing was pretty good, despite fears that floodwaters draining and being pumped into the lake would suck the oxygen from the water. The fishing was unremarkable compared to how awestruck I was by the destruction of literally every camp and house along the lake’s northern and eastern shorelines. It was living embodiment of the cliché term—“war zone”—that reporters used to describe everything, almost casually and nauseatingly, in the weeks since the storm. It was absolute destruction on a scale I had never seen. A dozen or more sailboat masts broke the lake’s surface, while the boats themselves rested 14 feet below, and root balls of a half-dozen pine trees were driven top-down, like nails, into the Pontchartrain’s sand and mud bottom.

Image courtesy of NOAA.

In the 10 years since Katrina and Rita, communities have been rebuilt, some smaller but smarter, with homes elevated and constructed to better weather the next big storm. Marinas, boat launches, tackle shops, and gas stations—some of which had to be rebuilt again after Gastav, Ike, and Isaac pounded and swamped our coast over the last seven years—are back and bustling.

Those who rebuilt their homes, communities, and businesses in Katrina’s wake generally aren’t interested in the press conferences, commemorative speeches, and hour-long TV retrospectives on the 10 years that have passed. Those spectacles help only if they come with a renewed and unyielding commitment to continue to fix the failures that occurred at every level and led to Katrina and Rita’s destruction.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was rightly ashamed in admitting that its levees failed. Lawmakers had no choice but to commit the funds needed to fix those mistakes, because many of them shared in that shame. But culpability and urgency is still lacking in addressing the policies that have led to the loss of nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands which once helped to shield Louisiana’s communities from devastating storm surges. Chief among those policies is one that does not permit the lower Mississippi’s waters and sediment to feed and sustain its delta’s swamps and marshes.

Louisiana has developed a coastal restoration and hurricane protection master plan since Katrina and Rita, and there is an agency to ensure the plan’s implementation. The state has eliminated many of the divisive bureaucratic processes that often had levee-building and coastal restoration agencies at odds, competing for the same small pools of funding. With those impediments put aside, the state has admirably advanced science-based projects and initiatives that recognize the value of multiple lines of defense, including the vital role of wetlands, barrier islands, and natural ridges, in ensuring the integrity of levee systems and the safety of our citizens. But, the diversion of sediment back into a delta that’s wasting away from sediment starvation, a large-scale restoration of the delta’s ecosystem, has yet to be addressed. Some politicians have even suggested diversions not be built at all, bowing to pressure from constituents who insist the move will cripple fisheries and that compromises can be made.

As painful as it is for Gulf residents to be reminded of Katrina’s toll this August, hopefully those reminders reinforce our resolve. Hurricanes don’t take pity on us for poor policies and bureaucratic morass. They don’t stop threatening while politicians sort through their priorities. And, as Louisianans have seen three times since Katrina and Rita, storms continue to bring devastation while we wait to protect our communities and restore our wetlands.

There is no such thing as compromise when it comes to restoring our coast, unless we’re ready to accept that the next Katrina could take this coast from us completely.

Five Years Later: What You May Not Know About the Post-Spill Gulf Coast

In anticipation of the five-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill on April 20, as well as the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership invited a small group of local outdoor writers to Buras, Louisiana, in late March, to discuss the ongoing and lasting effects of both disasters on habitat. Buras, located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, took a direct hit from Katrina, which flooded the small town with more than 20 feet of storm surge and washed away thousands of acres of wetlands on both the east and west sides of the river. Five years later, oil coated many of the samebays, barrierislands and marshes, worsening habitat loss and jeopardizing the health and sustainability of the area’s fisheries.

Image courtesy of Louisiana Sportsman.

The group met with Chris Macaluso, the director of TRCP’s Center for Marine Fisheries and a lifelong Gulf Coast angler, as well as fisheries experts and local guides, to get a firsthand view of the post-spill state of Louisiana’s marine fishery. While all who attended are life-long Louisiana outdoorsmen, seeing the power of Mississippi River waters and sediment to heal and sustain coastal marshes seemed to be aneye opening experience for all. You may be surprised by what they learned.

Coastal Contrasts

“The presentation by the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on current and proposed projects, the potential for “buckets” of money to go into the Gulf Coast Restoration Trust Fund, and what those dollars might be used for, really was an eye-opening experience for me. These are things that most of the general public is probably not aware of right now.

The tour on the east side of the river was incredible. To see firsthand the stark difference between the two habitats, and get the opportunity to ride by the terraces and see actual land that has been created—despite what opponents might argue—was a powerful testament to what role diversions could play in the state’s coastal restoration plan.

It really gave me hope that something might actually work in the long term to get the coast back on the right track.”

—Patrick Bonin, Louisiana Sportsman Magazine

Read Bonin’s story on the land being created by sediment diversions.

What’s New on the Bayou

“I cannot state in strong enough terms how valuable the TRCP media event held out of Buras the last week of March was. Although my job has me in the Louisiana marsh regularly, it was enlightening to examine our state’s wetlands with experts, who could point out examples of both marsh growth and degradation, and the reasons for each. I left with a new appreciation for the value of sediment diversions and, actually, a lot of hope for the future of the Bayou State.” 

—Todd Masson, Outdoors Editor, New Orleans Times Picayune and NOLA.com

Watch Masson’s videos on the success of sediment diversions, new growth on the east side of Plaquemines Parish, and the spring speckled trout catch.

The Way We Were

“So much has happened here in our lifetime. No one seeing southern Louisiana for the first time can understand the amount of land loss, changes in habitat, or siltation that has occurred here since the 1930s. It is my desire to keep this in everyone’s mind. I have been filming in the areas around Buras for seven years. In the beginning, we would film redfish and speckled trout shows on the west side of the river, but we haven’t done that in the last 5 years. Why? There isn’t a large enough concentration of fish on that side of the river to make it worth our while. Now, it’s almost all open water and very little habitat.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

On the other hand, filming on the east side of the river is a piece of cake. We caught and filmed largemouth bass, speckled trout and redfish in an area that’s exposed to Mississippi river water, pouring through gaps in the levee, full of silt and nutrients. When the river is high in the springtime it is hard to see how much land has been built in recent years. In the fall and winter, when we film the duck hunting season, the river is low and the tides are even lower. That’s when the new land can be seen for miles. Two weeks ago I jumped out of the boat and walked on hard ground, to film some wild iris growing in the marsh. If I remember, about 5 or 6 years ago, that spot was nothing but water and mud.

What we do today is going to be for our children and grandchildren. To save or rebuild our coastal areas could take hundreds of years, but if we do nothing we should all be prepared to move north.”

—Gary Krouse, Videographer, N-Line Production

Watch Krouse’s video for TRCP.

Specs on Specks

“The important part of this excursion to the east and west sides of the Mississippi River near Buras was to show the extent of the subsidence on the Mississippi River delta and the lack of sediment flow into the marshes. The east side is flourishing due to natural diversions. The west side of the Mississippi River is starved of sediment by levee projects during the last 100 years. This starvation process has also allowed the effects of the April 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon oil disaster to linger, if only because there’s no freshwater sources to cleanse this area, from the Yellow Cotton Bay throughout the Barataria estuary.

I’ve interviewed charter boat operators from the Mississippi River delta area and the Lafitte, Leeville, and Grand Isle areas, and there has been a noticeable decline in speckled trout catches during the last three years and a decided decline in the catches of minnows for live-bait use in the Barataria estuary.”

—Joe Macaluso, Outdoors Editor, The Advocate in Baton Rouge

Read Macaluso’s reports on the current effects of the spill, building marshes the natural way, and Mississippi River sedimentation, and watch his videos on where coastal conservations projects stand and how natural diversions are helping.

Five Years Later: Oil Spill Penalties Are No Anniversary Gift—But They Can Have Benefits

A Gulf Coast angler and fisheries conservationist reflects on the days following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—and the ongoing recovery efforts.

A longtime charter captain and friend, Darryl Carpenter, called me from Grand Isle at about noon on Tuesday, April 21, 2010. I was sitting at my desk at the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. It’s a conversation I will never forget.

“That rig explosion last night is very, very bad,” he said. “I heard they can’t find some of the crew and the rest have been brought back to Fourchon. The rig is still on fire and there’s oil all over the water. What have you guys heard?”

The truth was, despite my office’s firm grasp on the happenings along Louisiana’s coast, we didn’t know much at that point about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform about 50 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. I only knew what I’d read on some oil and gas trade websites and the little information that had trickled in from some local news reports and the Associated Press.

“I can say now that I had absolutely no idea of the scale of the accident or the amount of oil bellowing out of an unchecked drill pipe a mile below the Gulf’s surface—none of us did.”

The phone rang steadily all that day. Some calls were from charter captains and fellow fishermen, wanting to know if I had any “inside” information. A handful were from reporters, asking what our agency was prepared to do. I was the media relations director, so I should have known, but how could I? Our agency built wetlands and levees; we didn’t fight oil rig fires. We didn’t contain oil spills. The oil spill coordinator’s office should have those answers, I thought. I truly hoped it did.

Image courtesy of Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

By Thursday, the trickle of calls from reporters had become a flood. The next day, I reported to the state’s emergency operations headquarters, along with media relations staff from agencies for environmental quality, natural resources, wildlife and fisheries, and health and hospitals. It was like a family reunion when all of us trudged into a windowless 12-by-12-foot room, sparsely appointed with folding tables and chairs, a couple of TVsets, and about two dozen telephones. We had all worked shoulder-to-shoulder in similar quarters just 18 months before, when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike bared down on Louisiana’s coast, flooding towns from one end of the state to the other. Sadly, Louisiana had become well-seasoned in dealing with extreme weather, having endured and already started to recover from Katrina’s and Rita’s destruction in 2005.

The oil spill was much different. There was no end in sight. No way of predicting when the end would come or when the recovery would begin.

“We had no idea how long we’d be in that room. I suspected it would be more than a week, maybe more than a month.”

For 97 of the next 100 days, I sat there, sometimes 18 hours a day, answering the phone, writing situation reports, and poring over thousands of photographs to try and determine what we were seeing. On my three days off, I went fishing. I thought about how much I wanted to be fishing on every single one of the other 97 days and wondered where I would even be able to go. I wished I could do something on the water to combat the spill. Even if there was nothing I could do, I wanted to be anywhere but that room.

Image courtesy of Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Innumerable calls came in from reporters around the world. They wanted to know howmuch marsh would die, how many fish were being killed, and what Louisiana was doing to stop the threat. Charter captains, desperate for information or looking to work on the cleanup effort, asked if I could help. Friends who were unable to access their favorite waters called to ask where they could go. I could answer some of these questions, but on some days I was ordered not to.

Having fished many of the areas the spill was threatening, I could identify each of the islands and shorelines in the volumes of photographs coming in. Three weeks after the rig exploded, the first tar balls, looking like melted candy bars, arrived on Louisiana’s beaches. A week later, images of oil-covered birds on Grand Terre Island, including Louisiana’s iconic brown pelican, were sent to me. I had fished that very same beach less than a year before. I was sick at the sight of it, and many other beaches, coated in thick, black or rust-colored crude.

Image courtesy of Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

At the time, I also hosted a weekly hunting and fishing radio show. On a Thursday night in early June, I passionately conveyed my disgust to my listeners. I told them that our communities didn’t deserve this. I said that the Gulf of Mexico, its fish, fishermen, beaches, and birds didn’t deserve this either. Oil and gas has played a vital economic role in my state for the better part of a century, and the industry provides jobs for our people. Louisianans have also taken a lot of pride in supplying the nation with domestic energy. Oil and gas has given a lot in revenue and job security, but taken a lot as well, by carving up coastal wetlands with canals. Still, we had a level of trust with that industry that was shattered by BP’s negligence. It took 11 workers from their families, cost Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf access to its precious waters, worsened what was already tremendous coastal habitat loss, and jeopardized the future of the region’s fisheries and wildlife.

This was not fair. It should not have happened, and we must insist that it never happens again.


The future of the Gulf’s habitat and fish is still uncertain exactly five years later. Since 2010, we’ve had fat and lean years. In 2011 and 2012, the speckled trout fishing was incredible. In 2013 and 2014, it was not. We had an abnormally cold winter in 2013. Absent the spill, that could have easily been the culprit. Because of the spill, there’s an ever-present suspicion that it’s not weather’s fault alone.

Beaches are still oiled. More than 10 tons of tar was removed from East Grand Terre Island just a few weeks ago. Contrary to BP’s assertion that the Gulf is returning to normal, 10 tons of tar on a beach that I fish is not normal.

Image courtesy of Chris Macaluso.

It’s hard to draw a positive from the nation’s largest ecological disaster. But, the Gulf was far from a pristine ecosystem before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and the spill attracted attention to that fact. Sportsmen and the environmental community, often at odds, were united around the common goal of making sure habitat, science, wildlife, fish, and anglers would be priorities in the recovery effort. That unity helped motivate Congress to pass the Restore Act in June 2012—a landmark bill that directs 80 percent of Clean Water Act penalties to the Gulf, to help restore ecosystems and economies. In all, more than $15 billion could be available from Restore and other recovery funds.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has worked with the Center for Coastal Conservation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association, The Nature Conservancy, and many others to identify and advance priority habitat and fisheries sustainability projects that should receive oil spill recovery dollars.

Broadly, these priorities were identified in a 2013 report, “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery, and Sustainability.” Specifically, we identified 25 projects all across the Gulf that can help get habitat, fisheries data collection, and access to quality fishing opportunities on the right track.

It’s a good first step, but the reality is that the process of recovery has only just begun. It is imperative for sportsmen to remain highly involved and engaged in ensuring fish habitat and fishing are a priority for those deciding how to spend the money.

“If we can do that, we should see achievements—rather than wish lists—for improved habitat, better science, and more sustainable fishing, by the tenth anniversary of the spill.”

Ultimately, the penalties against BP for its gross negligence must be painful enough to ensure that my state and my fellow Gulf anglers never have to experience another spill like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Though nothing will ever fully compensate the Gulf’s fishermen—or its fish and wildlife—for what the spill took away, it is possible to make a good down payment on a productive and healthy fishery using the penalties.

The danger now is in complacency. I try to remind myself of the uncertainty—and my disgust—in the days following the spill, and of the hope I found in fishing. This was not fair. It should not have happened, and we must insist that it never happens again.

Hitting ‘em hard on Lake Ponchartrain

TRCP’s Center for Marine Fisheries Director Chris Macaluso gets in a quality day of fishing on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, finding plenty of speckled trout. Hear why this resource is important to TRCP’s fisheries work.

BP ‘gross negligence’ means billions for the Gulf

Image by Louisiana GOHSEP.

The phrases “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” were likely not given much thought by fishermen across the Gulf Coast before April 2010.

But, any angler who has followed the ongoing case being made by the Department of Justice against BP over the Deepwater Horizon spill certainly read the newspaper articles in early September littered with those two phrases. According to U.S District Judge Carl Barbier, who is presiding over the civil trial against the companies responsible for the largest oil spill in America’s history, BP committed a litany of negligent acts and used unsafe practices causing millions upon millions of barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf and subsequently across beaches, bays and marshes, some of which are oiled still.

How many millions are still to be determined by Barbier.  The Justice Department is making the case that 4.2 million barrels came through the bent drill pipe nearly one mile below the Gulf’s surface. BP, of course, says it’s responsible for about half that amount while maintaining the spill was a series of unfortunate accidents it had little control over.

The finding of gross negligence means BP’s penalties under the Clean Water Act will swell to $4,300 per barrel, making the determination of how many barrels were released of extreme importance in settling what the ultimate civil fine will total. The fine could have been as low as $1,100 a barrel had BP not cut so many corners with willful disregard for the safety of its workers and the health of the Gulf. If BP’s estimate for barrels spilled is accurate, the fine will be about $10 billion for its gross negligence. That total could be in excess of $18 billion if the Justice Department is right.

Image by NASA.

Barbier is expected to rule on the spill’s totals in early 2015, weeks before the five-year anniversary of the accident that took 11 men from their families and sent the Gulf’s ecosystem and economies into a tail spin from which some have yet to recover. That decision is being anxiously awaited by state and federal agencies, conservation groups and coastal communities because it will determine how much money the RESTORE Act Council, states, counties, parishes and research institutes will have to spend on ecosystem and economic restoration efforts.

Every milestone, public engagement opportunity, judge’s decision and project announcement is an opportunity to reflect and be reminded of how the Gulf’s anglers, commercial fishermen, business owners and communities got to this point. Those who revel in the Gulf’s recreational bounty and make their living off its resources don’t need to be told by a judge BP was grossly negligent. The images of oil-soaked pelicans, beaches and marshes and the ongoing uncertainty about the future of fisheries remain fresh in many memories. The wounds that have healed are likely to be reopened for some next April as media attention focuses on the state of the Gulf five years since gross negligence caused tragedy.

There is also opportunity to reflect on how so many concerned about the impacts of the oil spill and the decades of habitat loss in the Gulf joined together to implore Congress to make sure that the penalties from the spill came back to repair the ecosystems and communities damaged the most. Recreational fishing and hunting certainly suffered at BP’s hands, which is why so many sportsmen across the country united to push for passage of the RESTORE Act.

Trips were made to Washington by avid outdoorsmen to talk directly with Congressional staff. Businesses that support hunting and fishing joined arms and talked about how healthy habitats throughout the Gulf are essential for them to thrive and be capable of employing millions of Americans. Sportsmen’s organizations found common ground with environmental groups who also wanted spill fines to improve fishing habitat and restore ecosystems.

Despite Congressmen from outside the Gulf(even some in the region) and some state officials insisting the RESTORE Act had no chance of passing, hunters and fishermen leaned harder and harder until Congress made the prudent choice and passed the bill.

Image by Louisiana GOHSEP.

More than two years since the bill passed, the time has come again for hunters and fishermen to continue to be actively involved in the recovery and sustainability of the Gulf. The states are soliciting project ideas this fall that they can begin working on and can submit to the Restore Council for consideration for funding.

All of the projects and initiatives needed to make Gulf fishing better, from restoring marshes, mangroves and barrier islands to better management and science to education programs to needed repairs and expansion of docks, boat launches and artificial reefs are all eligible for funding. The states have asked for recommendations. They recognize how important recreational fishing is to coastal economies.

As the picture becomes clearer about how large the funding source may be, there is certainly time for recreational fishermen to reflect and appreciate the work it took to secure the funds. However, the harder task is ensuring the needs of fish and fishermen are addressed with those funds.

Report from the Gulf

The fourth anniversary of the start of the BP Gulf oil spill passed in April with relatively little fanfare.

Satellite image of the Gulf oil spill on June 7, 2010.
Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Flight Center.

Certainly there were some very important reports circulated in the media regarding the detrimental impacts of oil on larval fish, especially tuna, in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And the Coast Guard recently announced it was ending the active cleanup phase of the recovery effort and responding to oiling on a case-by-case basis, despite regular reports of oil showing up on Louisiana’s barrier island beaches. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that more and more workers are commuting to jobs in coastal parishes in Louisiana rather than living in coastal communities, which are growing increasingly vulnerable to flooding from wetland loss, sea level rise and the fact that the land is sinking, something most in South Louisiana have surely noticed on area roads during rush-hour traffic.

Despite these reports ringing alarms along the Gulf Coast, where post-oil spill and post-hurricane realities are ever present, the national spotlight will likely not focus on the oil spill again until next year when its fifth anniversary coincides with the 10th anniversary of the landfalls of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While many of the larger national news outlets passed on the in-depth examinations of the health of the Gulf and its residents this year, Smithsonian.com published an article that examined the impacts of the spill, attempting to distill fact from rumor and portray as accurate a picture possible of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2014 versus the Gulf of four years ago.

The article illustrated the impacts of hydrocarbons on larval fish such as bluefin and blackfin tuna, though it did not report that scientists and researchers know for certain that those impacts will have long-term detrimental effects on the populations of those fish. Scientists simply don’t know that yet and will need more time to ascertain that information. The article further explained key forage species, especially menhaden, had gone through enough life cycles for scientists to reasonably conclude that their collapse was unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibilities.

The article also quoted oil-spill experts who attested the oil released into the Gulf was a lighter, more volatile hydrocarbon than what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 – and it was released into a warmer environment with more micro-organisms in it to help dissipate and consume it. However, despite the ability of the Gulf’s warmer, highly-oxygenated climate to consume oil, once it reached the irregular, marshy shorelines of Louisiana’s coast, the oil was trapped in vegetation and mud – and likely will stay there for generations.

All of these findings, for the most part, had been reported before the piece in Smithsonian.com was published, though it was very helpful to have them all summed up in one tidy, well-researched article, especially as news of the spill’s aftermath has been pushed farther to the back of newspapers and magazines and off the home pages of most news websites.

Of all the points made in the article, one that stood out the most is the fact that the spill did not happen in a pristine environment. The Gulf, like many other coastal ecosystems across the world, has experienced more than its share of habitat loss, poor water quality and man-made and natural disasters.

Efforts to contain rivers from flooding and maintain them for navigation have disrupted vital sediment deposits needed to maintain wetlands that serve as fish nursery grounds and filters for nutrients from agriculture and urban runoff. Over-harvest and poor water quality, including nutrient loading and saltwater intrusion, have limited oyster and scallop production.

Poor water quality also can be blamed for the loss of historic sea grass beds, especially in Florida and Texas. Some places are getting too much freshwater and at the wrong times of the year, while others are simply not getting enough freshwater due to upstream diversions. Since scientists did not have a wealth of knowledge about Gulf fisheries before the spill, it’s difficult for them to draw specific conclusions about what the impacts of the spill are and could be.

None of this is intended to suggest that people do not have their place in the Gulf’s ecosystems. Rather, it is meant to point out that policymakers, lawmakers, scientists and Gulf residents must seize the opportunity to address the impacts and make the Gulf a better, more sustainable ecosystem. That opportunity comes in the form of the penalties that have been and will be paid to help repair the damages caused and exacerbated by the spill.

Efforts to restore coastal wetlands, oyster and sea grass beds; repair damages to coral reefs; return sediment flows back into the Mississippi River Delta and improve water quality across the Gulf are not just “feel good” stories. They are essential to making the Gulf’s fisheries and coastal communities sustainable.

More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas (including the author).

More than 3.5 million anglers hold recreational fishing licenses from Florida through Texas. That number swells by as much as a million when those are included who take charter trips out of states that include the license as part of the charter fee. That fishing activity annually generates more than $10 billion throughout the Gulf. Without efforts to make the ecosystems on which the fish depend more sustainable, those recreational fishing dollars gradually go away, as do the fishing opportunities.

As Gulf-area law and policymakers devise ways to spend oil-spill recovery dollars on “economic development” as the money continues to trickle in, it’s important for the recreational fishing community to remind them the wisest investment is in the ecosystems that already make up a huge part of the area’s economy.