In 45 years of flying seaplanes over Louisiana’s coastal marshes, Lyle Panepinto has never tired of the view from the cockpit of his DHC-2 Beaver—even as that view has changed dramatically. "I love it here," he says, barefoot in shorts and a windbreaker, one January morning after landing along the coast of the Chandeleur Islands, a 50-mile-long chain of barrier isles arching along eastern Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. These uninhabited swaths of sand and seagrass meadows are some of the most pristine and remote landscapes along the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of thousands of birds nest, rest, or feed on the Chandeleurs, and fat redfish and speckled seatrout swim in the shallows. What’s more, they provide an important buffer to protect New Orleans and other areas on the mainland from storms. “If this goes away," he says, "it will be a travesty."
The Chandeleurs are in fact slowly disappearing. Hurricanes have lashed their shores, and the natural deposits of island-fortifying sediment flowing into the Gulf from the Mississippi River ceased with leveeing of the river that began in the 1700s. Compounding the loss, oil from one of the largest environmental disasters in history blackened their beaches for more than a year.
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and spreading some 4.9 million barrels of crude across more than 43,000 square miles in the three months it took to cap the well. The volume of oil was equivalent to about 12 Exxon Valdez spills, requiring an unprecedented response effort that included pumping nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the fragile ecosystem.
The entire marine food web, from benthic organisms to large pelagic fish, birds, and marine mammals, was exposed to toxic oil and chemicals. An estimated 800 bottlenose dolphins perished, many from infectious disease in the years after the spill, research shows. By some estimates, more than a million birds died, including 12 percent of the northern Gulf’s Brown Pelican population; the species had been removed from the endangered species list only months before the accident.
Remarkably, the tragedy now offers an unparalleled opportunity to restore and preserve the Gulf ecosystem: $20.8 billion wrested in the 2015 Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement. Conservation groups are working to ensure that the funds, to be paid out over 15 years, not only address the environmental damage and degradation caused by the accident, but also build more resilient coasts. For its part, Audubon has identified 30 key projects across the region for which it recommends investing nearly 2 billion settlement dollars. A report released in February—Audubon’s Vision: Restoring the Gulf of Mexico for Birds and People—provides a roadmap to restore more than 136,000 acres of wildlife habitat, from Chester Island in Texas’s Matagorda Bay and the Chandeleurs off Louisiana to Florida’s Alafia Bank Bird Sanctuary, home to one of the largest Reddish Egret colonies on the Gulf Coast.
"The aim is to help recover from the oil spill and mitigate threats like sea-level rise, development, and human disturbance," says Kara Lankford, Audubon’s director of Gulf Coast Restoration. "Restoring these habitats benefits not only birds, but also fish, sea turtles, oysters, crabs, and people."
Lankford was working as a natural resources planner for Baldwin County Commission in Bay Minette, Alabama, when she heard about the Deepwater Horizon explosion. "In that moment, everything changed—everything became focused on minimizing the disaster," she recalls. "I remember going up in Black Hawk helicopters to check on the 200,000 linear feet of booms placed to prevent the oil from reaching the coastline. Every day we wondered, ‘Is this the day we’ll be in the helicopter and see those sugar-white beaches covered with orange oil?’ " she says. "Then one day it happened. Those ecosystems were completely altered. We still aren’t really sure what the impacts will be in the long term."
While there’s no visible sign of oil today—the powder-white beaches look pristine—a hidden tragedy is unfolding. In the past 150 years, the width of the Chandeleur chain has shrunk by more than 1,500 feet—about 8.5 square miles—whittled by rising seas, hurricanes, and widespread erosion. One of the priority projects outlined in Audubon’s Gulf plan is a $32 million effort to nourish and stabilize 140 acres of habitat in multiple locations along the 50-mile chain. "Restoring and shoring up critical bird habitat like the Chandeleur Islands is vital in the wake of sea-level rise," Lankford says as Panepinto’s plane soars over a variegated tapestry of wetlands. "We’re buying some time for the birds to continue to utilize these nesting and wintering grounds as we work to understand how sea-level rise will impact Gulf habitats."
Sitting in front of Lankford, Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation, calls out through the mouthpiece of his crackly headset: A flock of Northern Gannets is flapping over the water below. "Fantastic," he says, awestruck to see them so close to the coast and in such great numbers. They were among the most numerous birds found injured and dead during the spill.
Johnson points to a small island called Curlew. "When it was in its heyday in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was probably the largest, most important island in the Gulf, hosting about 80,000 nesting birds," he says. "Then came Hurricane Georges in 1998—that was the last straw. Now there are just scattered colonies across the other islands." He worries that without investment to build up the Chandeleurs, they could all succumb to the same fate.
As important as the Chandeleurs are as both a storm break and wildlife habitat, Johnson stresses that one project alone isn’t going to restore the Gulf: "You have to think about the system holistically."
Now, nine years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and three years after the settlement was approved, the release of tens of billions of dollars earmarked for restoration work across the region is starting to ramp up. The funds are being deployed through a number of different avenues due to the complexity of the settlement. These include more than $5.3 billion in RESTORE Act funds, $8.1 billion from the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, and $2.5 billion from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Audubon is working with the governing bodies disbursing these funds, and federal and state decision makers, to garner support for the projects it has identified. The organization’s scientists incorporated bird data and observational surveys with computer modeling to identify more than 8 million acres of suitable coastal breeding and wintering habitat for 11 flagship species, including Piping Plovers, Red Knots, Reddish Egrets, and Brown Pelicans, across the five Gulf states. Then they devised a range of strategies that would best improve and protect the birds and their habitats. Some focus on boots-on-the-ground monitoring to gauge population health; others restore degraded habitat or even build new barrier islands. Lankford is hopeful that the projects will all be funded.
The agencies and organizations responsible for doling out the funds are taking into account the best available science and often prioritizing projects that restore resources damaged by the spill, says Alyssa Dausman, vice president for science at The Water Institute of the Gulf, an applied research nonprofit. "The projects outlined in Audubon’s plan are not only based on sound science, but focus on a critical Gulf resource, birds, that were damaged by the spill," she says, and so fit the criteria for funding.
If fully adopted, Audubon’s plan would cost $1.7 billion. One of the highest-priority projects aims to help restore the natural land-building flow of sediment, fresh water, and nutrients from the Mississippi River to the Delta. The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion will re-create conditions that could build and sustain nearly 30,000 acres of marsh over 50 years. If funding is secured, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aims to begin construction of the $1.3 billion project—for which permitting is currently underway—in 2020. "These diversions are crucial," Johnson says. "If we do nothing, this will all be gone. The status quo is not sustainable."
The smaller projects Audubon is proposing could also have a significant impact, as evidenced by restoration of Louisiana’s Elmer’s Island. Funded partly from criminal fines in the Deepwater Horizon suit, engineers built up two miles of beach on Elmer’s to six feet above sea level in 2016. Audubon Louisiana monitors nesting Wilson’s Plovers, Least Terns, and Common Nighthawks on the island. When 2017’s Tropical Storm Cindy inundated the Louisiana coast, only the nests in the restoration site—33 percent of the island population—survived the surge.
The mechanics of how to get the sand to shore up the Chandeleurs have not yet been figured out, Johnson says, but if the barrier islands are restored, birds will surely benefit. Standing on a broad stretch of Chandeleur shoreline, he raises his binoculars, hoping to glimpse a Chandeleur gull, a rare hybrid of the Kelp Gull and Herring Gull. "This area is so remote and pristine," he says, "one of the only islands in the Gulf where there are no coyotes," fierce shorebird nest predators.
As we walk down the beach, we notice a large gray hump on the shore ahead. It’s a dead dolphin, eyes rotted and toothy, maniacal smile frozen in time. There’s no way to know what caused its death, whether sickness related to the spill or old age, but the sad sight reminds us of the terrible tragedy that unfolded in these waters.
With the sky graying and a fine mist of rain beginning to fall, we return to the Beaver. We rinse the sand off our boots, climb into our seats, adjust our headsets, and steer a course toward New Orleans, craning for one last look at the Chandeleur chain, where American White Pelicans and Redheads jostle in the back bays and Brown Pelicans gather amid the waves lapping the shore.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2019 issue as “Go Time in the Gulf.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.