This network of oil rigs sits in between New Orleans and the Chandeleur Islands, the southernmost area of the Mississippi River Delta, made up of 2.7 million acres of coastal wetland and home to an array of wildlife. New Orleans, which sits just north of the mouth of the Mississippi River, has developed its own food, music, and culture in the 301 years since the city’s founding, making Southern Louisiana truly unique.
At the corner of Iberville and Bourbon Street sits Acme Oyster Bar, opened in 1924 after a fire destroyed the Acme Café in the heart of the French Quarter. Acme grew in popularity in 1940, when troops, either being deployed or arriving home, would gather at the bar for beer and raw oysters. Acme’s years of history have created an atmosphere and recipe unlike any other, and on any given day you’ll have to stand outside for an hour behind a line of people waiting for Acme’s famous chargrilled oysters, worthy of the $22 price. All the menu reveals is “oysters grilled in an herb butter sauce with a special blend of cheese”, but they’re hiding something to these oysters that make them stand out.
When considering the history of Nola, Jackson Square plays an essential role. French colonials originally named the park Place d’Armes, translated as “weapons square”. This park served as the spot for public executions of criminals and rebellious slaves, and the heads of the hanged criminals were often placed on the city’s gates. In 1803, this park saw Louisiana made United States territory in accordance with the Louisiana Purchase. 12 years later, Place d’Armes was renamed Jackson Square, following the vital victory under Brevet Major General Andrew Jackson, in which American forces held off the city from a British attack and only suffered 70 casualties, compared to the British forces’ 2,000. Today, street artists, palm readers, and voodoo witches surround the square’s fence line, creating a lively atmosphere and unique entertainment.
30 miles southeast of the Big Easy sits Hopedale, built in between the winding channels of brackish water that serves as transportation systems for the guides and crabbers that inhabit this small town. I remember travelling to Hopedale for the first time in 6th grade and seeing the eye-opening conditions these blue-collar Louisiana natives live under. Hundreds of people lined the roads, fishing for redfish and speckled trout in the runoff trenches, not knowing that saltwater fish had no way of getting into these drainage systems, nonetheless living in them. Our group packed 12 people into two doublewide trailers, which proved to be a pain at 4:45 in the morning, with people scrambling around to find PFG shirts and Costa sunglasses before the Cajun guides left the docks. With lines in the water before daylight and fish striking lures faster than you could reel them in, we’d be worn out and ready to make the thirty-mile trek back to the docks around 3:00 in the afternoon.
Nicknamed “Sportsman’s Paradise”, the Mississippi River Delta earned its name due to the plethora of fresh and saltwater fish, oysters, shrimp, crabs, and millions of migrating waterfowl. The Mississippi River has deposited rich sediment in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico for thousands of years, allowing for the growth of plants, marshes, and barrier islands. This region stretches all the way across the southern coast of Louisiana, from the Vermilion Bay in southwest Louisiana to the Chandeleur Islands off the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi. The Delta is the largest drainage basin in the country, draining about 41% of the continental United States into the Gulf of Mexico.
The second day of the trip, my dad and I drew a guide with a reputation of being a hot head, but by God, he could put you on some fish. A rat-nested spinning reel resulted in 15 minutes of timeout on the back of the boat, unfortunately close to his “sh*t bucket”, but he put me on the biggest red drum of my life, 35 inches. Usually, there’s no need to worry about overcrowded fishing spots, but as soon as we anchored and started reeling in reds, other guides swarmed us like flies. Fed up after 3 or 4 ruined spots, our guide mumbled “Well, this is a clusterf*ck if I’ve ever seen one”, hauled up the anchor, and motored out of the spot, cutting a handful of other boats’ taut lines.
As the coast vanishes, species are losing the habitats they need to survive. Thousands of diverse species inhabit the once-plentiful Mississippi River Delta, from red drum to swamp rats to snow geese. All in all, the vast system of forests, swamps, marshes, river channels, estuaries, and islands make up one of the most productive wetland ecosystems in North America. Over 70 percent of waterfowl that use the Mississippi and Central flyways winter or stopover in Louisiana every year, and the Delta presents world-class fresh and saltwater fishing opportunities, not to mention the number of federally endangered species, such as the Louisiana black bear, that struggle to survive in the remaining coastal habitat.
April 7, 2018: the best meal of my life. Back to Hopedale, four years later, except this time, we upgraded our living arrangements to an old steam-powered river boat a mile or two down the road. Smiley, the caretaker of the river boat, fixed a low country boil after we arrived back from the familiar channels of my 6th grade trip. With enough crawfish, shrimp, andouille sausage, and corn on the cob to fill up two 120-quart igloo coolers, we ate until the heavenly, creole food grew cold (about 3 or so hours). Our mouths on fire from the pounds of crab boil and Cajun seasoning mixed into the boiling water, we sat on the top deck of the riverboat and watched on CBS as Patrick Reed, to our dismay, sweep the field at The Masters.
The muscular red drum broke the surface of the wind-rapped water, attempting to shake the popping cork loose from his gaping jaws. As the fish slid out of the heavy-duty net and onto the weather-stained deck, I counted seven spots, the most of the day. With the 10-horsepower trolling motor propelling the boat slowly, just above the years of built up mud and oyster shells, we monitor the narrow channels, imprisoned by miles of alligator-infested reeds, for rosy, translucent tails trolling five feet off the shore.
Before heading back to Dothan after my family’s last trip to New Orleans this past Christmas, we stopped for brunch at Atchafalaya, the only restaurant in Nola with five A’s. Known as one of the top 10 brunch restaurants in the country, Atchafalaya is famous for their chicken and biscuits, so obviously, I accompanied that order with a cup of turtle and alligator gumbo. These chicken and biscuits may seem simple, but they aren’t even in the same category as the generic Hardees chicken biscuit. Two homemade buttermilk biscuits, topped with two whole fried chicken breasts, and doused in gravy, along with the gumbo that sounded like roadkill but tasted like Heaven, held up as the perfect last Nola meal before the five-hour trip back to Dothan.
The restaurant is named after the Atchafalaya Swamp, where the Atchafalaya River and Gulf of Mexico converge to form the largest swamp in the United States. This swamp is the only growing delta system left in Louisiana, with wetlands that are almost stable, and making up more than 35% of the Mississippi River Delta, it’s larger than the Florida Everglades. With over 500 different species of wildlife, 22 million pounds of crawfish harvested each year, and the largest nesting concentration of bald eagles in the southern United States, this area seems to be thriving. Unfortunately, all other swamps and basins considering part of the Delta are depleting at an alarmingly fast rate.
The degradation of “The Sportsman’s Paradise” hurts not only the environment, but also the economy. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Fisheries Economics of the U.S, the Gulf of Mexico marine industry employed nearly 20 million people across Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida. The commercial fishing location quotient (CFLQ) for Louisiana topped the region at 1.38. This basically means that the level of commercial fisheries employment in Louisiana is almost 1.5 times higher than the nationwide average. Louisiana’s landings revenue topped the southeast at $331 million, almost twice as much as the runner-up, Texas. Just to put into perspective the economic impact of fishing trips on the state, recreational fishing trips impacted Louisiana at $4 trillion, with total trip expenditures topping $2.8 billion. The Mississippi River Delta plays a major role in the economies of Louisiana and Mississippi; once this wildlife refuge becomes used up, people all across the southeast that rely on the marine economy will bear the negative effects, but not nearly as much as the wildlife that calls the Delta home.
Every winter, millions of birds fly down the Mississippi and Central flyways, on their way to warmer temperatures across the Gulf of Mexico. Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl rely on the Delta’s food-rich habitats, whether it be preparing for the 600-mile journey across the Gulf in the fall or recuperating after the flight back north in the spring. Therefore, the destruction of the Delta doesn’t only affect its yearlong residents; waterfowl hunters as far north as Canada feel the effects of the Paradise’s degradation. The entire North American duck hunting community relies on the Mississippi River Delta, as it vanishes before our blind eyes.
The spotted sea trout, commonly known as the speckled trout, is arguably the most widely sought after aquatic species that inhabits the Delta. Even though the speckled trout is a migrating species, they crowd the warm, shallow channels during the spring and summer, feeding on anything from shrimp to mullet. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) defines the maximum length of speckled trout at 25 inches, but I’ve witnessed three over 30 inches. All three were released, purely out of respect.
Due to decades of mismanagement, along with damaging hurricanes and the 2010 Gulf oil spill, coastal Louisiana is disappearing at a rate of one football field every 100 minutes. In the past 100 years, Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles, roughly the size of Delaware. Several major factors contribute to this land loss.
First off, the delta’s wetlands are, and always will be, sustained by the rich sediments delivered by the Mississippi River, but huge levees built to protect communities and other resources have in turn cut the tie between the delta and its lifeline, completely wasting the sediments that keep the marshes replenished. Even without these levees, the amount of sediment left in the lower Mississippi most likely wouldn’t sustain the regrowth of the marshland already lost. Given the number of dams and locks built upriver on the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers, the amount of sediment in the lower Mississippi has decreased by more than 70 percent since 1850.
Also, Louisiana is known as America’s Energy Coast, so thousands of offshore oil rigs and wells border the state’s shoreline. These oil platforms have severely affected the coastal hydrology and sped up land loss, not to mention the thousands of miles of oil and shipping canals, such as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and the Houma Navigational Canal, which carry saltwater deep into the wetlands, disrupting the salinity balance and murdering freshwater vegetation.
...(download the rest of the essay above)