Storm Debris Removed from Louisiana Coastal Waters

March 21, 2008

Work crews are picking over hundreds of miles of coastal waters to clear old trees, sunken boats and other debris that have snagged fishermen’s nets and banged boats since hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is using $3.7 million in federal funding for fisheries rehabilitation to clear debris from 400 square miles of water bottoms.

The work began in July and is now wrapping up in Cote Blanche and Vermilion bays, where about 112 square miles off the coast of Vermilion, Iberia and St. Mary parishes has been targeted for debris removal.

One day in mid-March, two boats crisscrossed the bay, dragging a short metal bar with two giant hooks each weighing 35 pounds to snag debris.

The location of the water-logged trees, old cables, pilings and lost crab traps had been pinpointed earlier by a third boat that swept the bay with sonar.

“We can pretty much tell what it is before we go after it,” said Don Beauchene, who is overseeing the work for contractor CrowderGulf.

Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Paul Cook said the project has also tapped the knowledge of area shrimp boat captains, who know from experience where their nets have snagged.

“That’s how we helped prioritize the cleanup,” he said.

The largest item removed so far is a rusting 8-foot-tall, 2,070-gallon tank, Beauchene said.

There is less debris in Vermilion Bay than in areas harder hit by the 2005 storms to the east and west.

Crews have already worked through about 300 square miles of coastal waters, including portions of Calcasieu Lake, Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain, said Martin Bourgeois, a biologist with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“Most of the effect was in Lake Pontchartrain. It was just overwhelming,” Bourgeois said. “You had entire communities literally blown into the lake.”

He said early cleanup efforts in coastal waters focused on major navigation channels, “but fishing grounds were ignored.”

The money for the marine debris project comes out of $53 million in funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to rehabilitate oyster beds and shrimp grounds.

“One of the most beneficial ways is to remove debris,” Bourgeois said, adding the contractor has hired mainly Louisiana fishermen to help with removal.

Marine debris has remained an issue since the storms, and similar removal projects have been performed with funds from the state Department of Natural Resources.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has hauled away tons of appliances, old tires and large chemical tanks that Hurricane Rita washed into the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish.

Source: The Advocate.

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