Mark Shirley, Schultz, Bruce | 7/24/2007 1:33:23 AM
After an exhilarating airboat ride through the marsh, Keith Espadron of Port Sulphur ambled up to the beach, shell fragments crunching under his feet, and gazed out at the muddy shoreline that once was grass-covered marsh.
The outing was one of several for 4-H’ers participating in the LSU AgCenter’s Marsh Maneuvers program at the state’s Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge.
It was apparent to Espadron that the shoreline of mud and sand along the Louisiana coast is changing.
"How far has this beach eroded?" Espadron asked.
"The shells have been pushed back quite a ways. Several feet in just the past year," answered Mark Shirley, LSU AgCenter coastal specialist.
Tom Hess, biologist for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, explained to the students that the coastline along Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge recedes 40 feet a year in some places.
"You see the marsh grass at the edge of the Gulf? That was land a year ago," Hess said, adding that Hurricane Frances claimed 65 feet in 1998 and that Hurricane Rita caused about the same amount of damage in 2005.
The difficulty of protecting the Southwest Louisiana coastline is complicated by a 40-foot thick layer of mud and sediment that prevents the use of rock jetties to control erosion, Hess said. "We can’t use rocks here because they would just sink into the mud," he explained.
Hess said a series of coastal projects will be started at the refuge this year to figure out what will control erosion, but he said the work will be ongoing for decades.
"It’s going to be your challenge as young people to correct these problems," he said.
Living in Plaquemines Parish, Espadron is all too familiar with coastal erosion.
"It’s part of my daily life," the 4-H’er said.
Espadron’s family lived in Venice before Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm, they moved to Port Sulphur.
"I’m worried in 20 or 30 years my home won’t be there," he said. "That’s what they keep telling me."
Attending Marsh Maneuvers gave Espadron a better understanding of why Louisiana’s coastline is washing away.
Marsh Maneuvers is a four-week program each summer that brings 4-H youths from across the state to the Louisiana coast to get immersed in a marine environment. Fourteen 4-H members from Ascension, St. Bernard, St. Martin and Plaquemines parishes attended the weeklong session July 16-20.
"The curriculum covers a lot of different aspects of coastal erosion, coastal resource management and all the resources that make this coastal area so important to Louisiana and the rest of the country," Shirley explained. "These kids will have firsthand knowledge of the wildlife and fisheries, and they get to see the changes in the salinity of the marsh from salt to brackish to fresh and how that affects the plant and animal life."
Night hikes, planting marsh grass, an airboat ride, dragging a shrimp trawl, throwing a cast net, watching a sunset, catching crabs, attending classroom lectures and eating seafood are just some of the other activities.
The airboat ride was a new thrill for Megan Albert of St. Martinville. "That amazed me how they can make those sharp turns," she said.
It also was Megan’s first time to see Louisiana’s coast.
"So this is the Gulf of Mexico," Megan said, looking out over the open water.
Shirley has been running the Marsh Maneuvers program for youngsters for 20 years. But to see his enthusiasm and energy, it seems as though he’s only worked on the program for a year or two.
"It’s just important to pass on the enthusiasm for the coastal zone, because it’s so important in so many different ways," Shirley explained. "The point of this program is not to make biologists out of them but to make them aware that all of them will be affected by the coastal environment in their lifetimes and in their kids’ lifetimes."
When bad weather stormed through the refuge, Shirley had to improvise. Instead of a boat ride to drag a shrimp trawl, students listened to wildlife agent Gene Viator talk about his career enforcing fish and game laws. Then they played an intense game of charades.
David Templet of St. Amant said he was glad he participated in the program. He said he’s been enjoying the experience while also gaining knowledge.
"It’s been fun riding on all the vehicles," he said. "And I learned a lot about the environment and coastal erosion."
Wayne Burgess, an LSU AgCenter 4-H agent working in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, said his 4-H students are well acquainted with coastal land loss.
"That’s one of our service-learning projects," Burgess said.
Burgess said his 4-H members built 3,000 feet of coastal fencing at Breton Island, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials estimate the project helped build 10 acres of land.
"It’s been wiped out by storms," Burgess said. "Hurricane Ivan took a chunk out of it, and Katrina put the K-O on it."
Students also had a nursery of 500 black mangrove trees at the LSU AgCenter’s Citrus Research Station in Plaquemines Parish, but that also was wiped out by the storm.
He said several projects are under way at high schools at Chalmette, Port Sulphur and Belle Chasse to grow coastal plants in greenhouses to be transplanted in the marshes.
"We’re just trying to get our restoration projects functioning again," Burgess said.