The Quest to Save a Pelican Rookery Decimated by Deepwater Horizon

Five years after the BP oil spill, funds from the disaster will finally help restore Cat Island.

In early spring 2010, Brown Pelicans were gearing up for breeding season on southeastern Louisiana’s Cat Island, the fourth largest pelican rookery in the Gulf of Mexico. Squadrons of the stocky seabirds had flocked to the small island off the coast of Plaquemines Parish to rear their young in nests atop eight-foot-tall mangrove trees, sharing the oasis with thriving colonies of wading birds and gulls. Then disaster struck.

On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. Of the 4 million-plus gallons of oil that rushed into the Gulf of Mexico, more than one-third made its way to Cat Bay. “The island’s pelicans were literally choking in oil,” says National Audubon Society Vice President Doug Meffert. Recent research calculates bird deaths from the spill to be a whopping one million.

But the birds were not the only victims. Cat Island itself—the landmass closest to where oil entered the bay—absorbed the toxic substance. The mangroves withered and died, and by 2013 the once-teeming rookery was completely barren. Without the mangroves’ tough-as-nails root systems to keep sediment compact and in place, the island began to rapidly erode. “After the spill, Cat Island dissolved like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee,” says P.J. Hahn, former Plaquemines Parish coastal zone manager. All that’s left is a narrow .2-acre shoal of sand and dead sticks, barely visible during high tide. The last count, in 2008, suggested nearly 1,000 Brown Pelicans nested on the island—today, there are none.

“Five years ago on a nice day, the area above Cat Island would be dark with birds,” says Hahn. “Now you can count them by hand if there are any at all.” 

Now, finally, a half-decade after the disaster, Cat Island is getting a second chance. Construction will begin this summer to rebuild the island to 30 acres. The restoration can’t come soon enough. Brown Pelicans imprint on the place where they are born and return there to lay eggs. If that area disappears or becomes too degraded, birds born there simply stop reproducing—as has happened with the Cat Island pelicans, which haven’t bred on the shrinking landmass since 2010.

To restore Cat Island to its former bird-filled glory, the parish will build up its base with imported sediment that the Army Corps of Engineers dredges up from Mississippi River canals. Once that ground is stable, Plaquemines and its partners will plant black mangrove volunteers to reestablish the trees so critical to pelican nesting. In the meantime, the parish and the Corps will build elevated nesting platforms. Migratory birds will also gain ground: The outer shores of the island, for instance, will be composed of imported dry sand—the preferred nesting surface for species like the American Oystercatcher. 

The project will cost $6 million, but none of it will come from BP’s $4 billion compensation pot (most of that has gone to Louisiana’s State Master Plan). Instead, the plucky parish has found their own way forward: Plaquemines raised $3 million in restoration funds from Apache Oil, Shell Oil, and American Bird Conservancy. In January 2015, the RESTORE Act Council approved Plaquemines’ Multiyear Restoration Plan, pitching in the extra $3 million needed to begin work, which will take an estimated eight months. If all goes according to plan, by the 2016 nesting season, the elevated nesting platforms—and the solid ground beneath them—will be firmly in place.

“We need to be proactive,” says Hahn, who still works with the Plaquemines Coastal Zone Management through his recently founded firm, Pelican Consulting LLC. “If there’s no more habitat, there will be no more birds— simple as that.”