Down the bayou

A marine biologist, a community, and the resolve to preserve an ocean’s bounty


photo of a shoreline, with oil rigs in the distance and sparse grasses in shallow water in the foregroundNOAA photoA restoration site on the Gulf Coast: Oil rigs provide a backdrop for newly planted cordgrass

Cajun folklore holds that once upon a time there was a crawfish cowboy called Sugarcane Joe whose task it was to watch over the crawfish catch. Apparently Sugarcane Joe grew bored with his assignment and fell into the annoying practice of shouting, “de cocodrie, de cocodrie,” when there was no crocodile at all. Each time he sang out, the locals would come running from their homes, fearful of losing to a crocodile their sustenance and livelihood, their crawfish – only to find Sugarcane Joe yukking it up, his day certainly made.

As you might expect, folks grew tired of the game, and on the day de cocodrie did come calling, no one showed; goodbye, Joe; goodbye, crawfish.

Stand by the Point Cocodrie Inn on the edge of Terrebonne Bay on a midsummer’s morning and look out there, just beyond the bay. What you’ll see is tranquil waters. But there’s something quite dramatic going on, just a ways out, maybe 60 feet deep:

Hypoxia, severe oxygen depletion, is forcing aquatic animals – shrimp, for example – to flee their homes. Those unable to do so – snails and certain crabs among them – are dying, choking on an overload of nutrients that causes a depletion of oxygen in the water.

In September 2004, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy presented to the president and Congress “An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century,” one of two comprehensive assessments of our oceans released in the past three years, the first such since the Stratton Report of 1969, out of which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was born. The commission blueprint quoted a National Research Council report that called nutrient pollution “the most pervasive and troubling pollution problem facing U.S. coastal waters.”

“Nutrient pollution leads to a host of ecological and economic impacts,” the blueprint continued, “including: fish kills due to oxygen depletion; loss of important and sensitive coastal habitats, such as seagrasses; excessive and sometimes toxic algal blooms; changes in marine biodiversity; increases in incidents of human illness; and reduction in tourism.”

This past summer, 4,564 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico were consumed by hypoxia, thereby rendered an unsuitable habitat for shrimp and fish.

In a manner of speaking, the water out there is suffocating – though you won’t hear Nancy Rabalais describe it in those terms. Dr. Nancy Rabalais is no alarmist; sensationalism isn’t her style. She’s been called “quotable,” and, by Forbes magazine, an “environmentalist darling.” That’s because she speaks the facts and speaks them often, to whomever will listen. But “Hypoxia Hysteria”? No, thanks. In fact, she doesn’t much care for the now-widely-circulated description of these waters as the “Dead Zone.” Inaccurate, she says.

Rabalais knows these waters. She knows that within an 8,000-square-mile expanse of gulf waters there are nutrient overloads, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, that are causing seasonal depletion of oxygen below levels required to sustain most animal life within the ocean.

Rabalais led one of six research teams that assembled a substantial body of information for the “Integrated Assessment of Hypoxia in the Northern Gulf of Mexico,” published in 2000. The reports were written on behalf of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, one of five committees convened under the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), established by Bill Clinton in 1993. In its executive summary, the assessment states:

“Since 1980, the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers have discharged, on average, about 1.6 metric tons of total nitrogen to the Gulf each year…. Nitrate flux to the Gulf of Mexico has almost tripled between the periods 1955-70 and 1980-96.”

woman smiling on the deck of a boatcourtsesy Nancy RabalaisDoctor Nancy Rabalais

The assessment goes on to explain that some 90 percent of the chemicals doing the damage come not from the cities, towns and factories along the banks of the Mississippi, which feeds into the northern gulf and delivers this nutrient overload. Rather, it comes from basins draining agricultural land in the Midwest, far upriver.

The Mississippi River travels 2,552 miles, draining 31 of the contiguous 48 states, a million and a quarter square miles, or just over 40 percent of the continental U. S. The river and its basin provide for one-third of all farm-related jobs in the country, a one hundred billion-dollar industry. From the time the mighty Mississippi has left Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota till it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it has picked up quite a few relics of its journey, including a surplus of chemical and animal waste nutrients, the byproduct of contemporary farming practices.

The delivery of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico is a choice example of too-much-of-a-good-thing. Estuarine and coastal waters need these nutrients. But too much of them stimulates the growth of algae and plankton. This over-enrichment of the waters is called eutrophication, and often leads to hypoxia.

Hypoxia arrives in the gulf in the spring, when the sun has begun to heat the Mississippi waters and when the river flow is at its highest. The waters layer: warmer fresh water atop; the cooler, denser, saltier waters of the gulf beneath, restricting re-supply of oxygen to the bottom waters. The nutrients that have washed into the gulf are now trapped in this top stratum, accelerating the production of algal blooms, some of them toxic, and zooplankton. Nutrients stimulate algae to grow, and zooplankton and other organisms consume the algae. The algae not consumed may sink to the bottom and die. Fecal pellets from the zooplankton also sink to the bottom. This organic matter deposited on the bottom is decomposed by bacteria that use oxygen in the process. The loss of oxygen is now exceeding the re-supply of oxygen from the surface waters.

In tandem, the layering of the waters and excessive oxygen consumption below comprise a recipe for hypoxia.

In autumn the fresh water has begun to cool, tropical storms and cold fronts move in, and the top and bottom waters once again begin to mix. Oxygen levels then begin to rise.

The sources of nutrient overload in the gulf, and the consequent depletion of oxygen, are myriad and many. Foremost, though, as the NSTC assessment states, is agricultural runoff, most particularly nitrogen from chemical fertilizers. Population growth has contributed increased sewage-based nutrients. Watersheds have been drained, no longer providing a buffer. The hog industry further adds to the overload. The largest area of coastal hypoxia in the Western Hemisphere, the second largest in the world, is here in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia is placing at risk one of the nation’s most vital fisheries.

But the affected waters off Cocodrie are no “Dead Zone.” Yes, those life forms unable to flee will die. But a rich ecosystem lives on – no point misstating the issue. Moreover, the town of Cocodrie seems to be doing okay itself.

Mention anywhere within a 150-mile radius of New Orleans that you’re headed down into southernmost Louisiana and you’re likely to get some rendering of the rejoinder, “Things are just differ’nt down there” – and things are different down there. Terrebonne Parish maintains one of the most unique cultures in the country – a dialect, music, cuisine, traditions all its own – but just barely. The arrival of the oil industry and the homogenization of America (cable TV, fast-food franchises, et al.) are redefining this landscape, and a drainpipe the size of, well, the Mississippi now threatens Terrebonne’s inherited means of livelihood.

The NSTC assessment warns that “because spawning grounds, migratory pathways, feeding habitats, and fishing grounds of important species are affected by the extent and duration of hypoxia,” if it continues to expand, at some point “fisheries and other species would be expected to decline, perhaps precipitously.”

This is no story of good and evil. Farmers warn of higher food prices if drastic measures are imposed on their methods of production. Reclaiming watersheds as buffers against agricultural runoff will mean displacement of homes and businesses. The solution is not a simple one, and it challenges a scientist with a concern for the big picture, such as Nancy Rabalais, to also think in terms of public policy, public relations, naturalism and, in moments, sociology.

It’s December now in Terrebonne Parish; a variety of fish are biting. But, come next spring, there’s no reason yet to believe things will be any better for these waters; indications are that they could well get worse. There is, as yet, no NSTC action plan; it’s in the works. Meanwhile, Cocodrie is taking notice.

Former Louisiana state representative and local marina owner Johnny Glover recalls dialing up Rabalais several years back, declaring, “Nancy, you’re ruining my business. My fishermen aren’t coming because they think there’s no fish down here.”

“And I said to him,” says Rabalais, ‘Johnny, you know this is a problem; you know it’s an issue. I’ll be glad to come over and show you the data.’”

She did, and Glover is today a believer.

photo of an egret on a branch over water
Down the bayou

Forget about trying to wrap your mind around the bayou. Not on a single visit. Take in the perspective provided by Alligator Annie Miller’s Swamp & Marsh Tours or, alternatively, by Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp & Marsh Tours.

But sitting and listening, quietly, most anywhere, is the first best step. Sounds, you’ll find, are suggested, muted, discreet. Plashhhh.

Call out, an echo returns, but somehow it’s no longer yours. It can chill you to ponder where it’s been.

Head down Hwy. 56, past the last of the convenience-store casinos, as the town of Houma gives way to a landscape much like that of anywhere rural, non-agronomic America, excepting that bayou there – though, truth be told, excepting the bayou is just not possible. It’s pretty much everywhere down here in Terrebonne Parish, the bayou. It’s found alongside the road, most every road – most all of which run north and south – behind single-story gray-blue homes, bent, beaten, stoic and sure; the less-sure trailers on stilts, tall stilts, plenty tall enough to install 9.5-inch lifted suspension on a Dodge Ram 1500 with oversized tires beneath.

Which is a good thing to do. In bayou country, big trucks aren’t for show. Men and boys and a good number of women fish in the bayou and hunt in and around it. Shrimpboats – the Angela Marie, Nannie Annie, Lady Mathilda, the Caillou Pride and Bayouside Child – dock right at the edge of the yard, forty feet from the door. When the haul’s good, that one’s the front door. When it’s not, that’s the back: Most folks keep their hand in two, maybe three or four different trades.

About twenty-five miles out of Houma – you’re now nearly eighty-five miles south of New Orleans – you’ll see the Cocodrie water tower approaching on the horizon. Slow down. Just ahead is a DEAD END sign, and you better believe it means it. You’ve reached the end of the road.

But you will have already slowed, as just after the water tower you’ll have been introduced to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium – LUMCON – an impressive, airport-esque structure, concourses angled in four directions, Terrebonne Bay at rest to the south.

In the LUMCON lobby an inscription reads: “All that we do is touched with ocean, yet we remain on the shore of what we know. – Richard Wilbur”

Nancy Rabalais is a Texan by birth, born in Wichita Falls. Her dad worked as an engineer in the oil industry. The talents of an 8th-grade teacher inspired her love of biology.

“My mother told me in high school I should take typing and shorthand,” says Rabalais, “so that I’d always be able to get a job.” Mom was on the money: Rabalais worked her own way through two years of community college and then into Texas A&I (now part of Texas A&M) in Kingsville. She earned her BA and MS in biology, then took a job as seasonal naturalist at Padre Island National Seashore. Next was a gig in Port Aransas identifying organisms in gulf mud samples, before returning to school in 1979. In 1983 she earned her PhD from the University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas. Her path then led to Cocodrie.

“The director of LUMCON at the time,” Rabalais recounts, “Don Boesch, had a project looking at long-term effects of offshore oil and gas development. I’d worked on a pre-assessment of oil and gas development off the coast of Texas. I knew a lot about the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem, and I was hired to work on the project.” She was placed in charge of the chapter of the report on differences in ecosystems around the country and how they might be affected by oil and gas production. She was to be based at LUMCON in Cocodrie.

Rabalais arrived in Cocodrie in an old rusty green Ford pickup with a dog, cat, monkey, an aquarium full of fish and a then-husband (she’s since remarried, to colleague Eugene Turner of LSU’s Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences, also an expert on hypoxia; they have a daughter, Emily, 16). They moved themselves into a temporary trailer, and, “I’ve been here ever since. Thought I’d be here two and a half years. But things change in life.”

The poster child
“I started the low-oxygen work in ’85. Don [Boesch] knew there was an issue because he had grown up in New Orleans and recently come from Chesapeake Bay; he knew about low oxygen, knew that nitrate levels were rising in the Mississippi River.”

Boesch convinced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to give him money for a couple of years of research on hypoxia. Rabalais was onboard.

She offers some history:

“Between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers is the Mississippi River Delta Plain. It was built over hundreds of centuries by the river moving back and forth. In the scheme of things, human beings have accelerated some of the land-loss problems by digging channels and harbors and pipeline canals. The resources are actually pretty resilient considering what we’ve done to them. We still have a lot of resources.” In fact, the estuaries in the delta plain are considered perhaps the most productive in the country.

“You’d expect the Mississippi and the gulf to be prime for hypoxia,” says Rabalais, “because the river’s always been putting out a lot of fresh water and nutrients. But the concentration of those nutrients has accelerated since the ‘50s. We don’t have records further back than 1905, but the system started changing when the nutrients started going up and when we started changing the landscapes up in the watershed, cutting forests and plowing up flood plains.

“We’re never going to recover that habitat. The natural ability of the landscape to take up the nutrients just doesn’t exist anymore. Most of the wetlands have been drained. So we’ve not only changed the landscapes and the ability of the landscapes to filter the nutrients, we’re putting additional nutrients on them that weren’t put on in the past.”

Rabalais began to document hypoxia in the gulf, each midsummer testing oxygen levels at monitoring stations spread about the affected area, and to publish her work. NOAA sponsored extensive studies of hypoxia in the area from 1990 to 1995; Rabalais received money from that project and from NOAA’s National Undersea Research Program.

Still, no one in a position of authority was offering to pay for a solution.

Then came the Great Flood of 1993, in which the Midwest witnessed record flooding. Levees along the Mississippi were washed away; the river remained flooded from May to September. As a consequence, the size of the hypoxia-affected area of the gulf doubled, to over 6,000 square miles.

“I wrote a press release,” Rabalais recalls. “That got some attention.” The year following the flood, when rainfall returned to normal levels, the hypoxic zone failed to shrink accordingly. “So I kept putting out press releases.”

boat on the water, with nets all aroundNOAA photo

On August 24, 1997, the Washington Post ran a Sunday page-one, above-the-fold story on hypoxia in the gulf. That got Louisiana Senator John Breaux’s attention. Several other large dailies ran stories, and soon the EPA started paying attention. NOAA was doing a review of estuaries with the problem, and attention was now coming the delta plain’s way.

“Now,” Rabalais observes, “this area is known as the ‘hypoxia poster child.’”

“Under the leadership of the EPA and NOAA, an interagency task force was formed to start narrowing down the causes and sources.

“Then in 1998 [U.S. senators] Olympia Snoweand John Breaux passed the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998” – the Snowe/Breaux Bill to Rabalais – “authorizing a national assessment of low oxygen, a national assessment of harmful algae blooms and an assessment of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia issue.”

Science in its complexities

Watching underwater footage of the hypoxia-infested waters of the gulf with Nancy Rabalais is an interesting experience – largely so because what she sees, apparently, is everything, and everything as one.

A watercolorist in her spare time, Rabalais trains an artist’s eye on the vista before her: a few baleful ling, angelfish, sheepshead, sergeant majors, little red snappers – thousands of them – one solitary grouper. Then, beneath, a layer of nothing, nothing but organic debris – a crab claw lies on the bottom. It’s an intricately textured mosaic, a very delicate balance, here thrown off kilter.

Does Rabalais consider herself an environmental activist?

“No.” Then, “Maybe I am an environmental activist in the sense that I try to use science-based research and data to change policy. But I’d call that a … I don’t know.”

She was named a “1999 NOAA Environmental Hero.” She’s received an award for her work from the Clean Water Network. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution gave her a Bostwick H. Ketchum Award in 2001 for, in her words, “being a good solid scientist.” She is a past chair of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council.

“I’m always objective. If I’m not objective, I’m not a scientist. ‘Just the facts, ma’am.’

“I try to present all sides of the arguments. I’ll say, ‘Some people think that low oxygen has been out there forever, but here’s some data that show it hasn’t.’

“I do not believe in conducting science that does not get translated into information that the public can use.

NGOs will come to me for data, and they’re really concerned; they see a real issue and they don’t see government moving fast enough. I’ll give my data to the farm bureau and I’ll give it to the Gulf Restoration Network – anybody who asks me, I’ll send them slides, I’ll send them pictures, I’ll send them raw numbers.”

She’s always particularly appreciative when she can gather in Cocodrie for support. From Johnny Glover, for example.

Once skeptical, “He’s now one of the biggest spokesmen for, ‘We’ve got to do something about this; it’s just going to get worse if we don’t.’ He’s got a thick Cajun accent, and he can say things that I can’t: ‘I put my fishin’ line down and there’s no fish anywhere where I’m layin’.’

“It’s good he’s onboard.”

Rabalais’ relations with the locals are mostly good these days, better than in the past. (A local oysterman once threatened her; LUMCON has had bomb threats.) “They call LUMCON ‘the school’ or ‘the school down the bayou.’” Though her home is in Baton Rouge, she’s on the “frequent-flier plan” in the LUMCON dormitory. But she still encounters those who are unaware of the problem.

The task ahead

There’s much yet to be learned of hypoxia.

“Science,” Rabalais recently wrote, “is an evolving state of knowledge that at times warrants action but often cannot provide absolute certainty.”


What needs to be done? The NSTC assessment highlights two primary approaches: “reducing nitrogen loads to rivers and streams in the Basin” and “restoring and enhancing natural denitrification and nitrogen-retention processes to reduce nitrogen loads from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers to the Gulf.”

The northwestern Black Sea was once ravaged by hypoxia; massive numbers of fish died. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and could no longer provide fertilizer subsidies, fertilizer use dropped by more than half, and the hypoxia crisis lifted. Empire collapse is one solution – but not one Rabalais is advocating for the U.S.

Rather, the solution she advocates is a multi-faceted one. “A 12-percent reduction in the use of fertilizers would bring a 30-percent reduction in the nitrogen load to the river and cause no loss in production.” She cites the potential effectiveness of alternative cropping systems, planting cover crops in fall and winter to absorb nutrients. Better management of livestock manure would help.

Rabalais recognizes that the task ahead is a daunting one. Farmers are understandably skeptical of being further regulated. Forbes wrote of “a scheme to convert some of America’s most productive farmland into muskrat metropolises.”

She recognizes that it’s going to take a lot of educating; that it’s a question of sharing the load among local, state, federal and Native American jurisdictions; that only a collective will can solve the problem.

Progress of the Snowe/Breaux Bill task force was stalled by turnover in the EPA when the Bush administration took office. The gulf hypoxic zone had now grown from the size of Connecticut to beyond that of New Jersey. This development apparently alarmed then EPA chief, and former New Jersey governor, Christine Todd Whitman, and she reconstituted the task force. Now in its fifth year, the task force is undertaking a necessary reassessment of the science, the potential management tools and the actions to be taken to reduced nutrient loads.

Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana has been developing plans to foster local organizational efforts along the lower Mississippi.

A practical faith

“Some years back,” Rabalais recalls, “I was working on pollutants from some of the oil-treatment facilities and how they effect the animals on the bottom. I asked the [LUMCON] director at the time for permission to be witness for the state on a permit hearing, and he said, ‘You might as well; your work’s not good for much else.’

“So, you know, it’s been a battle.” She’s an optimist at heart.

Each April, the citizens of Terrebonne Parish gather in Chauvin, just north of Cocodrie, for the Blessing of the Fleet, heralding the opening of the shrimp season. Bad weather in 2005, both drought and hurricanes, made for a poor crawfish season in the parish. As for the shrimpers, they’ve often been forced to trawl farther out, past the hypoxic zone, which can make the cost of doing business more expensive. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took an awful toll, with perhaps as many as a third or more of all area shrimpers experiencing damaged or destroyed vessels. Market prices have been down for some time; global competition is fierce.

Moreover, the NSTC assessment points to a general decline in brown shrimp catch, the most commercially valuable along the Gulf Coast, which has mirrored the rise in hypoxia.

In the earliest embodiment of the blessing ritual there would be an outdoor mass and a simple blessing. Now it’s a daylong affair, highlighted by a parade that begins at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and proceeds down the bayou. Then everyone drinks, parties and eats crawfish, eager for the shrimp to come in. Terre bonne: “good earth” in French. These folks know how to count their blessings – and it’s all about the bayou, that bay, the gulf beyond, and its bounty.

Taylor Sisk is a North Carolina-based freelance writer and editor.

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