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The Forgotten Island Destroyed by the Gulf Oil Spill

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent massive oil spill has become old news, and very little consideration is given to what the disaster still means for wildlife and the sensitive ecosystems of coastal Louisiana. It’s long been back to business as usual for British Petroleum (BP), but for conservationists and locals of the region, the damage to Cat Island will never be forgotten.

A former wildlife refuge and Pelican rookery, Cat Island was a mere 5.5 acre land mass, yet it was home to a number of species of rare and migratory birds who would return each year to hatch the next generation. After the gulf oil spill, millions of gallons of crude oil bombarded the island, and efforts to prevent oil from drenching the mangroves and delicate sand beaches of Cat Island proved futile.

The islands of Cat Bay lay isolated, several miles from any other land mass, in an area that is sinking into the gulf. Although the islands were eroding before the spill, Plaquemines Parish government blames oil damage for hastening their demise. Far too small and isolated to play any role in hurricane protection, the islands were home to thousands of nesting birds, including pelicans, egrets, tricolored herons and various shore birds.

The Executive Director of the Audubon Society in Louisiana remarked on the significance of this loss.

“Cat Island was actually one of the 4 largest rookeries in Louisiana for brown pelicans, snowy egrets, roseate spoonbills, listeners and a variety of other shorebirds, so now its just a fragile remnant of what it was.

Having this loss from sea level rise from natural erosion and to be exacerbated by the BP oil spill, to me, it really is in a way the canary in the coal mine for the habitats that are going to be threatened in the next couple decades.” ~Doug Meffert, Executive Director, Audubon Louisiana

Describing the island as it was before the oil spill, local government official, P.J. Hahn offered this perspective:

“In 2010 prior to the oil spill, this was a pristine island with about 8 foot mangroves. It was roughly around 5 and a half, almost six acres. this was ideal nesting ground for migratory birds in the wintertime looking for places to nest for the spring. When the oil spill hit these little islands were here to greet the oil.

Us wildlife and fishery studies show that chicks when they’re born will imprint to these islands so every year they return to the same place they were born to breed and nest again. The sturdy also shows that when the birds come back here if the island gone, they don’t go off and breed somewhere else, they just don’t breed. So, we’re losing generation after generation of birds.

We even had some rare and endangered birds that were actually nesting out here, and today nothing, they’re all gone.” ~P.J. Hahn, Former Coastal Zone Director, Plaquemines Parish Government

Adding to the conversation, Natalie Peyronnin, Director of Science Policy, Environmental Defense Fund, had this to say:

“The oil comes in, it kills the mangroves, which then kills the root system, and the root is holding together this island and without that root system holding together the sediment it just erodes away. In just five years we’ve seen this island almost disappear, and probably by the next anniversary, this island will be gone.

This is essentially one of the longest running environmental disasters in the US. Five years later oil’s still coming ashore here, and will continue to come ashore here, as scientists have found immense tar balls and oil still remaining at the bottom of the gulf.

Ultimately what this means down the road we don’t know. We know, when the old pill hit, in the first 95 days over 800,000 birds perished. What does that mean for the long term stability of those populations?

There is an effort to restore this island and to bring sediment back and the mangroves back. So. if we don’t start doing restoration now in environments that were oiled, the harder that’s going to be. It’s going to take more resources, more money, to build back what was there before the oils spill.” ~Natalie Peyronnin, Director of Science Policy, Environmental Defense Fund

In 2016, it was reported that Cat Island had officially sunk into coastal waters, however, in Plaquemines Parish, LA, a debate is underway regarding an effort to rebuild the islands.

Final Thoughts

Sadly, next to nothing has changed for the oil industry which continues to drill and frack in our nation’s bodies of water. In May, 2016, another significant leak occurred at an offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles off the coast of Lousiana, releasing some 90,000 gallons of deepwater crude into the sea, with little to no coverage in national media.

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