Effort under way to restore Cat Island in Plaquemines

The months have not been kind to Cat Island, two small spits of land in Plaquemines Parish that have served for years as bird nesting destinations.

Cat Island is the name for two separate islands that have been eroding for years. In the past four months, the two islands have gotten smaller with much of their vegetation dying or dead.

Cat Island west was 360 acres in 1930, 40 acres in 1998 and 4 acres in 2010 before the Deepwater Horizon/BP explosion and subsequent heavy oiling.

Although in July the island could boast areas of thick black mangroves that were being used by brown pelicans, by Nov. 16, the mangroves were dead and the island had been split into two pieces.

Cat Island east was about 5 acres before the leak in 2010. In July, it was just a sand spit with some vegetation that may be 100 yards long and 30 yards wide. By November, it also was smaller and without vegetation.

However, there is an effort under way to restore the islands — if the money to do the work can be found. Plans for restoring the islands include breakwaters made of a structure that will have holes in it to allow water flow, a fish habitat and to serve as oyster foundations.

These breakwaters will enclose about a 40-acre area around each island, said F. Ryan Clark, project scientist with Arcadis, who is working on the project.

Inside those lagoons, sediment from the Mississippi River will be pumped in to create about 7- to 8-acre islands with a maximum elevation of 5 feet, which will taper down to water level, he said.

A permit for one of the restoration projects has been granted and the comment period on the second island’s permit was recently completed, said P.J. Hahn, director of Plaquemines Parish’s Coastal Zone Management Department.

Hahn said the plan is to put the project out for bid in December with construction hopefully beginning in January.

“I don’t think we can wait much longer,” Hahn said.

Walking around one of the islands recently that is owned by Plaquemines Parish, Kerry St. Pe, executive director of the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program, pulled up a short, dead-looking stem of spartina marsh grass.

“There’s no living rhizomes. This is deader than dead,” he said as he tossed it back to the ground.

He said the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 took its toll on the two islands.

“There’s no question the islands were damaged by oil,” St. Pe said. Because they’re small islands, they can be overlooked and their importance to the ecosystem ignored, he said. “They’re important for bird nesting because they’re small,” he said. “It’s a very unique habitat.”

Clark added that these inshore islands provide a higher elevation than surrounding marsh and they’re isolated, which means they are free of predators that eat eggs or young birds.

Finding the money for the estimated $8 million project is the next hurdle.

The restoration of the two birding islands has become almost a personal mission for Hahn, especially since the oil leak in 2010.

So far, about $3 million has been committed to the project through sources like Plaquemines Parish, Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, Coastal Area Impact Program, Shell and others.

Hahn said he went to state agencies to see if there was money available for the program. However, state officials said they could not provide any money because the restoration of the two islands is not included in the state’s master plan for coastal restoration, which is the project that outlines how and where any coastal money the state receives will be spent, Hahn said.

BP is also a potential source for funding. The parish is considering talking to BP directly to secure $8 million for the project that would be a down payment to the total settlement being worked out in a lawsuit the parish has against BP, he said.

Another concern is the timing of the restoration work, especially given how quickly the islands are eroding and the fast approaching bird nesting season that for pelicans can start in late January, said Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for the Gulf Coast Conservation/Mississippi Flyway with the National Audubon Society.

Driscoll said they are working with the parish to do pre-construction bird surveys, and she’d like to give input on the project design to help maximize habitat for multiple bird species.

Looking at the islands on a recent trips, she said the need for restoration was evident.

“The sooner you get the permits and get started the better,” Driscoll said.

Hahn said the islands were disappearing too fast to wait through another nesting season for the restoration to begin.

“Any bird who nests here, it’s a death sentence for them,” Hahn said.

There is no protection from the elements, and the island is so small that during a storm, it would be covered in water. Although adult birds can escape, eggs and newly hatched birds wouldn’t, he said.

Driscoll agreed the islands weren’t in any condition to provide nesting habitat for brown pelicans or other birds and said she’d help the parish in working with state Wildlife and Fisheries and other resource agencies to explain the problem.

It’s possible, she said, if the construction gets moved back into nesting season, birds may need to be scared away from the island this season.