Despite having the fifth-longest coastline in the U.S. and the country’s largest area of coastal wetlands, Louisiana is the only coastal state without a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). Officials there are now beginning the extensive process to change that.
NERR sites are created and managed in partnerships between the federal government and state entities to conserve estuaries and estuarine-like ecosystems for research, education, recreation, and stewardship. Federal officials designated the country’s 30th NERR—in Connecticut—on Jan. 14.
Beginning Feb. 1, Louisiana officials will hold a series of in-person and virtual town halls to solicit public comment about three potential reserve sites, one each in the Atchafalaya, Barataria, and Pontchartrain basins. All are home to thriving estuarine wetlands, which are crucial to the state’s vital seafood industry: Louisiana is the country’s top shrimp producer, and supplies more than one-third of the nation’s oysters, according to Restore the Mississippi River Delta.
Estuaries are broadly defined as areas where freshwater flowing from rivers and streams mixes with saltwater from the ocean. They create abundant habitats for marine life, serve as buffers from storms and sea level rise for coastal communities, and often boost local economies.
An NERR could help Louisiana’s coastal economies—and imperiled wetlands
Despite the importance of marshland to the state’s economy and culture, Louisiana loses a football field of coastal islands and wetlands every 100 minutes and has sustained more coastal land loss than any other state, according to Nicholls State University. Since 1930, some 2,000 square miles of the Pelican State have turned to open water.
A Louisiana NERR would complement and extend scientific, educational, and stewardship activities underway by other federal, state, and academic programs, according to Louisiana Sea Grant, one of the primary entities championing a reserve in the state. The proposed sites consist of public lands and waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administers the reserve system nationally; states and local entities oversee day-to-day management of NERR sites, mostly with federal funding and technical support. A designation would not trigger new regulations or limit current recreational or cultural uses, which NOAA regards as important attributes of any NERR.
The nine town halls—three devoted to each of the proposed sites—will take place both virtually and in person in Hammond, Lafitte, Morgan City, New Iberia, and New Orleans through Feb. 11. A full schedule and agenda are available on the Louisiana Sea Grant website.
Sites showcase state’s distinctive habitats and geography
Below are details on the three potential sites. Governor John Bel Edwards (D) is expected to nominate one to NOAA by June.
- Atchafalaya Basin, a National Heritage Area and one of only 36 global “biodiversity hotspots,” Earth's most biologically rich—yet threatened—terrestrial regions. It is the nation’s largest river swamp, encompassing nearly 1 million acres of the country’s most significant bottomland hardwood forests, swamps, bayous, and backwater lakes. The basin is larger than the Florida Everglades and is home to about 65 species of reptiles and amphibians, mammals including the black bear, otter, and muskrat, more than 100 species of fish and aquatic life, and serves as habitat and flyway to more than 250 known bird species. It annually produces an estimated commercial harvest of nearly 22 million pounds of crawfish, a statewide delicacy.
- Barataria Basin, covering 1.6 million acres, is one of the nation’s most productive estuaries and provides a significant storm surge buffer for communities along the west bank of the Mississippi River and in Plaquemines Parish. The estuary includes bottomland hardwood forests, swamps, salt- and freshwater marshes, bays, and barrier islands.
- Pontchartrain Basin, a 10,000-square-mile watershed, either includes or borders the lakes of Pontchartrain, Maurepas, and Borgne. The basin contains more than 22 essential habitats, according to the Louisiana Land Conservation Assistance Network, with topography ranging from rolling woodlands to coastal marshland. With the 630-square-mile Lake Pontchartrain at its center, the basin borders the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
A Louisiana NERR would help the state build partnerships to study and mitigate coastal erosion and prompt vital research to help Louisiana—and the rest of the U.S.— counter climate change and sea-level rise. Pew commends Louisiana’s efforts to join this important federal network.
Tom Wheatley manages ocean conservation in the Gulf of Mexico, and the support and expansion of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, as part of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.