Earlier this summer, Louisiana nominated a portion of the Atchafalaya Basin—often referred to by coastal scientists and conservationists as “America’s wetland”—to become the country’s 31st site in the federal National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS). This network of protected estuaries and other habitats in coastal and Great Lakes states and territories supports research, stewardship, education, training, and recreation within these vital ecosystems.
Estuaries are areas where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with saltwater from the ocean. The Atchafalaya Basin encompasses almost 1 million acres of forested wetlands and is the heart of Louisiana’s abundant seafood industry and celebrated Cajun culture.
These places have great value. They boost local communities by supporting recreationally and commercially important marine life and by buffering coasts from storms and sea level rise.
Seth Blitch is director of coastal and marine conservation with the Louisiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy and chaired the Louisiana NERRS site screening committee, which selected the Atchafalaya Basin for nomination as the state’s first reserve. Blitch, a Florida native, has worked on coastal conservation issues in the Gulf of Mexico for almost three decades, including as director of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve in Florida from 2003 until 2011.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you become interested in coastal conservation?
A: I spent a lot of time on the coast as a child. My dad, my brother, and I fished around the Chassahowitzka River area [on Florida’s Central Gulf coast] and caught lots of redfish and trout. But more than that, we just had an excellent time together on the water. My dad has always been a great steward of the land, but he’s also someone who just loves being out in nature. So, I came by it naturally because that was the example I had and because it's really liberating to be outdoors. As a child, I felt free and unencumbered. To this day, I still do.
Q: “National Estuarine Research Reserve System” is a bureaucratic mouthful. What should people know about NERRS?
The reserves are pretty remarkable because they really give visitors a sense of place, a connection in terms of how the river meets the sea and forms the estuary. And then each reserve gets the power of being part of a larger, well-integrated research system throughout the country.
Q: How do they benefit the public?
A: Nearly all reserves participate in what’s known as the systemwide monitoring program, which looks at changes in water quality and quantity. That data gets reviewed every year and is used both in the resource management of that specific reserve and across the entire system. In Apalachicola, it was useful in not only managing the reserve but also in communicating to the public, whether they were oyster fishermen or people interested in going to the beach.
And research reserves have great educational programs, both for K-12 students and coastal training programs that usually target more professional audiences. They show what's unique about that estuary, why oyster reefs matter, why those seagrass beds are important, or why a certain river maintaining its hydrology matters to a coastal community’s livelihood. There's a lot of science that happens, and when you're in the boundaries of the research reserve, the science is really evident.
Q: Do you have any particularly memorable experiences from a NERRS site?
A: I have so many, just from Apalachicola. There were moments when I would have a break and I would look around and see our staff working with people on different games or programs, and I’d recognize most of the people there as part of the community, people who were local. And I’d think, “We're doing the right thing. We're doing a good job.”
And my kids spent a lot of time on the water there with my wife and me. It was a great place to raise children. We scalloped together, fished together, went to the beach. I can think of a couple times where we went and watched the sunset in the winter, and no one else was there. It’s almost unimaginable that you could have a place so beautiful to yourself. But we did. Those were really incredible moments.
Q: How did your time in Apalachicola prepare you to work on this Louisiana reserve effort?
A: I think it really reinforced the notion of connectivity. And by that, I mean the river-bay-gulf connectivity. It's a continuum of habitats that changes subtly over space and time. Estuaries change every day, from the birds migrating overhead to what's flowering. For example, in Apalachicola, we had monarch migrations every year that were easy to see. If you didn't have a calendar, you could almost always tell what time of year it was just by what was going on in the bay.
I also learned to appreciate how complex and difficult resource management can be when you're at the receiving end of the nation’s largest watershed, the Mississippi River. The river drives everything in Louisiana, so, when I came here, it was nice to already be grounded in that a bit, so that it was more digestible for me.
Q: Why should Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin be part of NERRS?
A: The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest forested wetland in North America. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates the Mississippi’s flow, and their current system directs about 30% of the river’s water directly into the basin. So, the basin ultimately forms a critical estuary, not only for Louisiana, but also for the 41% of the country that share the Mississippi watershed.
Another reason is that the Atchafalaya River and one of its outfalls, the Wax Lake Outlet, are the only two places actively building land in the state, which is losing coastal wetlands at a profound rate.
The research reserve can be at the heart of studies that look at how deltas are built, how that can increase the productivity of habitats and species, and how that knowledge can be applied in other parts of the state, or even other parts of the Gulf.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by “deltas are built”?
A: Much of southern Louisiana has been created through sediment carried by the Mississippi River. Within the Atchafalaya system there are locations where you can see new land, created from the deposition of those sediments, that have been above water for less than a decade. Over time, these areas become vegetated and accumulate more sediment, slowly forming a delta.
Q: How has the community responded to the effort to create a reserve?
They’ve been unbelievable. The crowd that came to the town hall meeting in Morgan City was clearly prepared for it from their hearts and really identified with the notion of a research reserve. The best possible scenario for a new reserve is to have a local community that really wants and supports it. And that’s definitely the case in the Atchafalaya.
Q: How could the reserve benefit Louisiana economically and culturally?
A: Economically, although we have rapid land loss, Louisiana still has lots of productive marshes that provide a lot of great seafood—some of the largest commercial seafood harvests in the country. There are a lot of questions that people in the seafood industry may have that a reserve could address through research, education, or outreach.
And culturally, southern Louisiana is very rich, between Cajun and Creole cultures and the Atakapa and other Indigenous peoples. Communities have existed there since there have been communities. It’s a place where people relate very deeply to the land and the waters. They’ve grown up fishing and hunting and living off the land, and that’s still evident today. The reserve can conduct research and offer educational and training programs that will help visitors have an even stronger connection to the culture.
Q: What comes next?
A: Now that the governor has nominated the site, the next step is for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides federal oversight of NERRS, to review and accept the nomination. At that point, the formal designation process begins, which principally consists of conducting, with NOAA, an environmental impact statement, developing a management plan for the reserve, and deciding the boundaries. That process will take several months to over a year.
Research reserves don't come with any additional regulatory baggage. Each state sets the rules to maintain a given reserve’s suitability as a research site, and public access for any outdoor activities that were allowed before the designation, like fishing, canoeing, or kayaking, are typically still allowed after the reserve is established. So, for Atchafalaya, whatever rules Louisiana has in place or enacts later will govern the lands and waters of the new reserve.