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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 13 — Journey’s End on Grand Isle

Into the Gulf, from River to Sea

In the Gulf, people and nature live in close proximity, finding ways to survive and thrive.

The Wild Mississippi

Watch Cindy Brown, a life-long resident of New Orleans, talk about her personal connection to the river and what she is doing as The Nature Conservancy's Director of Mississippi River and Delta Conservation to help protect the river for the future.


Story Highlights
  • The Mississippi Delta supports the second largest commercial fishery in the United States, after Alaska, with landings of fish and shellfish worth more than $290 million a year in Louisiana.
  • The Dead Zone is a vast area off the coast of Louisiana and Texas where little marine life survives, a phenomenon called hypoxia. Research shows that runoff from urban and rural lands in the Upper Mississippi River basin is contributing to Gulf hypoxia.
  • The Nature Conservancy works with farmers and a variety of partners to institute practices that reduce the runoff of fertilizer and other chemicals into the Mississippi and its tributaries.

By Tom Eisenhart

By the time the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico, the river is defined as much by what it brings as what it withholds.

There are probably few people who know that better than the 1,500 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana, a barrier island in the Gulf on the edge of the state's coastal wetlands, part of the vast Mississippi River Delta.

The livelihoods of those who work the large shrimp boats lining Grand Isle's wooden docks are made possible because the Mississippi endlessly supplies billions of gallons of fresh water. Mixed with the Gulf, it helps create an incredibly rich estuary where fish and shellfish breed and grow.

Terry Pizani, a soft-spoken commercial fisherman, is one of those beneficiaries, as are his three sons, who have followed him into the business.

Leaning on a crate at Grand Isle's docks, Terry tells me that, depending on the year, he may focus on catching shrimp, grouper, red snapper or king mackerel, "whichever one pays the most money." For the past few years, king mackerel has been where the money is at.

Threatened Livelihoods

While the Mississippi's waters are a blessing for communities like Grand Isle, the pollutants and excess nutrients the river pours into the Gulf pose a serious threat.

Terry explains that, when the river floods up north, it is particularly problematic for him and his fellow fishermen. The deluge of polluted waters, when combined with hot weather and calm seas, deprives nearby areas of oxygen and drives the fish away.

So instead of fishing 10 to 20 miles offshore, he sometimes must travel hundreds of miles down the Gulf coast. That cuts into his margins; more travel means more money for fuel and everything else necessary to stay out on the Gulf for longer stretches of time. Still, Terry says the amount and size of fish he has caught over the past 25 to 30 years has remained basically unchanged.

Terry recognizes that a growing Dead Zone could ultimately jeopardize his livelihood and that of his sons. For now, it's just a matter of how far he has to travel to follow the fish.

Restoring Vanishing Wetlands

On shore at Grand Isle, the coastal wetlands that surround it are vanishing before residents' eyes. What the Mississippi River withholds is millions of tons of sediment, held behind hundreds of miles of levees built along the Lower Mississippi and key tributaries in the upper river, such as the Illinois River.

With access to its natural floodplain cut off, the river no longer carries as much of the rich sediment that once replenished Louisiana's coastal wetlands. And due to re-engineering of sections of the lower river, much of the sediment that does make its way to the Gulf ends up far off shore, too far to benefit communities like Grand Isle.

As a result, Grand Isle is losing the wetlands that serve as a storm buffer and help nourish the fisheries the community depends on. Looking around at Grand Isle's homes, many strangely perched on thick, 10-to-12-foot wooden piers to guard against the surge of hurricanes, I can imagine that ongoing erosion must be disconcerting for residents.

To help stem the land loss while enhancing the local fishery, The Nature Conservancy is working with partners on a project to enhance oyster reef development at Grand Isle. It involves placing a layer of small rocks and oyster shells over concrete breakwaters to encourage oyster colonization. The hope is that, as oysters colonize, the reefs will grow. That could help slow down storm surge, protection natural oyster reefs have traditionally provided.

Another project just underway involves building a 1.5-mile oyster reef on the bay side of Grand Isle. Funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the reef will help protect and restore the bay's 300 acres of remaining marsh.

Oyster reef restoration is just one of many tools needed to ensure that Louisiana's coastal wetlands continue to provide benefits to people and nature, according to Cindy Brown, Director of Mississippi River and Delta Conservation for the Conservancy.

"The scope of the problem is so immense," she says, "that we focus a lot of our effort on securing federal funds to put this river back into its historic delta."

If and when that happens, Grand Isle residents may begin to feel like they are standing on firmer ground.

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