It’s Time to Restore the Chandeleur Islands

05.11.2020 | In Coastal Restoration
By John Lopez, Director, Coastal Sustainability Program

Ten years after the BP oil disaster, one of the most impacted wildlife areas has yet to receive recovery funding. 

The Chandeleur Islands are the Gulf Coast’s most pristine barrier islands, even after the assault of oil in 2010.

Established in 1904 as the second national wildlife refuge in the country by the godfather of conservation, President Teddy Roosevelt, the islands have never had a paved road or permanent settlement. 

Recreational fishers visit the island after crossing a large bay, managing to navigate shallow flats as they nuzzle up to the islands to wade fish for big speckled trout. The fishers are often hooked — as well as the fish — after their first visit.

An aerial photo of the Chandeleur Islands. (Courtesy of Gulf Coast Air Photo)

The closest occurrence to the habitation of the islands was Eustis and Marge Veazey, who settled on nearby Free Mason Island in 1957. The couple lived alone on that island for 29 years but had frequent day-fishing visitors.

The late Mr. Veazey once said that the best thing about the islands was the effect it had on people. They may have been truck drivers, lawyers or school teachers but when they arrived, they shed their normal personal baggage and persona. 

Once on the islands, you’re transformed and become lovers of the outdoors, bound together by your mutual experiences of the untouched, natural beauty of the islands.

But there’s so much more than fishing.

In the spring, Brown Pelicans nest on the simple beauty of the islands. The chain also hosts the largest nesting colonies of royal and sandwich terns in North America. Kelp and Herring Gulls that normally breed on opposing poles of the globe find themselves breeding in harmony on the Chandeleurs. 

Sea turtles lay their eggs. Horseshoe crabs feed along the beaches. Seagrasses on the backside of the islands provide key habitat for many marine species, such as sharks who have their shark pups there. 

Yes, this is Louisiana’s most wild and unaltered landscape.

Oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill makes its way to shore on Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana on May 7, 2010. (Associated Press/The Dallas Morning News, Vernon Bryant)

The islands also moderate salinity so that salty seawater doesn’t reach the Biloxi Marsh. Oysters there would die without the buffering effect of the Chandeleur Islands. The islands also reduce the size of waves that would erode the marsh and provide a line-of-defense that helps maintain our coastal buffer to hurricane surge. 

Unfortunately, nearly the entire Gulf side of the islands was oiled in 2010. Turtles, waterfowl and other species touched or covered by oil were found. 

An emergency sand berm of 4.8 million cubic yards of sand was built to protect the islands from further oiling, but, by the time it was completed, the worst of the oiling had happened, so the berm did little to protect the islands.

However, years later, studies indicated the sand berm provided a source of sand and may have helped rebuild the north end of the Chandeleur Islands. Indeed, a 2009 USGS study predicted that the islands could disappear as soon as 2013. Instead, the islands have shown continuing recovery.

Chandeleur Islands: 2005 vs. 2019

Helped by the avoidance of any major hurricane landfalls in recent years, the islands’ unquestionable ability to naturally repair themselves is evident. Their modest recovery is encouraging but ultimately limited to the amount of sand available on the islands. Restoration by pumping more sand will make them even more resilient to future storms. 

Restoration of the islands is feasible because the 2009 USGS study documented a vast undersea reservoir of sand. The underwater area north of the islands (Hewes Point) has an estimated 492 million cubic yards of pure beach sand, which is more than sufficient to entirely replace the existing volume of sand on the main Chandeleur Island. 

This sand is the same quality as the sand found on the islands, so it’s the perfect material to rebuild the islands. The emergency sand berm built used just a fraction of this sand and demonstrated that the sand can easily be pumped onto the islands. 

Meant only as a barrier to the oil, that berm wasn’t designed to optimize the islands’ longevity or provide ecological benefits. Unlike the rushed construction of the berm, the technology exists to place sand from Hewes Point to restore the islands.

A pod of dolphins photographed off of the Chandeleur Islands. (Courtesy of Gulf Coast Air Photo)

Such projects have been done extensively elsewhere in Louisiana, so why not the Chandeleur Islands? 

Despite the massive oiling by BP and the opportunity to restore the islands, to date no BP funds have been spent to restore the Chandeleur Islands.

This, in part, may be due to an overly pessimistic (post-Katrina) study by the USGS in 2009 and the drawn-out process of post-spill efforts to assess damages and select projects.

Recently, federal agencies have begun to discuss the restoration of the islands. This might be approached as using funds to restore sea turtle habitat or seagrasses, in addition to the recovery of the islands.  

By restoring the Chandeluer Islands, we have an opportunity to protect an incredibly special landscape that provides immense benefits, from storm surge protection to communities to habitat for wildlife.