A portion of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Coastal Basin, an area rich in plant and wildlife biodiversity and the site of two actively growing deltas, could soon gain federal designation as a National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR). Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) is supporting nomination of a site within this 1 million-acre basin to become the state’s first NERR after a two-year process that considered three areas representing some of Louisiana’s most expansive and distinctive coastal landscapes.
The Pelican State has the fifth-longest coastline in the U.S. and the country’s largest area of coastal wetlands. It’s the only coastal state without a NERR. The reserves are designated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and managed by the states with a goal of conserving estuaries—areas where freshwater flowing from rivers and streams mixes with ocean saltwater—and estuarine-like ecosystems for research, education, training, and stewardship. NOAA administers the reserve system nationally, with states and local entities overseeing day-to-day management of sites. All NERRs receive federal funding and technical support and are protected by state laws and regulations.
In a statement announcing the nomination, Gov. Bel Edwards said, “[T]he Atchafalaya Basin is home to a unique and cherished culture and history” along with “two active, land-building river deltas and an extremely vibrant estuary.”
Estuaries foster rich habitats for marine life, serve as buffers for coastal communities from storms and sea level rise, and boost local economies with bountiful seafood harvests and numerous recreational activities.
The Atchafalaya 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; and more than 100 species of fish and aquatic life. The basin also serves as habitat and migratory flyway to more than 250 bird species. Its waters, in the heart of Acadiana, Louisiana’s Cajun Country, yield an estimated annual commercial harvest of nearly 22 million pounds of crawfish, a statewide delicacy.
Designation would support coastal economies—without adding regulations or limitations
To oversee the site’s designation and creation of the management plan at the state level, Gov. Bel Edwards selected the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which has five broad objectives: advancing coastal projects that reduce economic losses from flooding; promoting nature-based solutions to protect coasts; conserving and expanding coastal habitats; sustaining Louisiana’s cultural heritage by protecting its natural environment; and supporting “working coastlines”—places that support livelihoods—that are vital to the state’s economy. CPRA will continue to work closely with Louisiana State University, which has spearheaded the site selection process, to identify a specific site within the basin to be nominated to NOAA.
Due to industrial activity, changes in water flow, development, and climate change, Louisiana loses coastal islands and wetlands equal to the area of a football field every 100 minutes and has sustained more coastal land loss than any other state, according to figures derived from the U.S. Geological Survey. Since 1930, about 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 already underway by federal, state, and academic programs, including those exploring the impact that climate change is having on the state’s disappearing coast.
“Louisianians are fiercely proud and protective of what their coastlines provide, notably their considerable economic, recreational, and cultural contributions,” said Seth Blitch, coastal and marine conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. “A NERR is a mechanism that allows the state to honor its historic way of life without imposing new regulations or prohibitions on residents and businesses.”
Site embodies state’s rich cultural heritage and reliance on its coast
Atchafalaya Basin is also a National Heritage Area and one of only 36 global biodiversity hot spots, Earth’s most biologically rich—yet threatened—terrestrial regions.
State and federal officials now begin a multiyear process to formally designate a specific site. If NOAA approves the site that the state nominates, stakeholders will begin conducting research and compiling information needed to create the site’s governing documents: a detailed environmental impact statement and management plan. If those are approved by NOAA, Atchafalaya Coastal Basin will become the country’s 31st NERR and, more importantly, will help Louisiana safeguard its rich biodiversity, coastal economies, and unique culture.
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.