For the past 20 years, LSU AgCenter agent Mark Shirley has been taking students out into the wild to help remind them of who Mother Nature is and how everything we do has an effect on the ecology. “Marsh Maneuvers” began as a way for Vermilion Parish 4-H members to learn more about the problems of erosion, to get the students thinking along the lines of countering the erosion problem and to keep them grounded in the natural resources that are so often taken for granted in today’s fast-paced life.
Marsh Maneuvers is a week-long event that is the reminder of a lifestyle that has also been forced to deal with its own erosion problems. Some of the days begin pre-sunrise, there’s nature hikes or “fun runs”, enjoying meals together as a group seated around a table, even mid-day power naps and boat rides through the canals out to the Gulf of Mexico, along with catching and preparing the food for dinner. And then technology catches up with today’s modern teenager whether it’s a cell phone or music play of some type.
Sunrise isn’t seen so much through the eyes of a teenager when sleep doesn’t come until well after midnight; nature hikes get tangled up with earbuds connected to a music player and the modern music of the day; boat rides through the solitude of the marsh are viewed looking down as kids text messages back home or to friends; and cleaning fish or shrimp still mean getting your hands dirty and stinking even hours later. However, it seems that playing with babies of almost any species, including alligators, is still fun.
While the maneuvers are the product of the Vermilion Parish LSU AgCenter and 4-H center, the program has been opened up to 4-H members across the state. Currently, the location is the Rockerfeller Refuge in Cameron Parish. In the past, it has been held in Grand Isle at a site that no longer exists. Erosion took that chunk of land out to sea. Mark Shirley and Ashley Marceaux with the American Wetlands Conservation Corps (AWCC) play the part of the local hosts, while other county agents with the LSU AgCenter program and other AWCC members drop in from across the state. Shirley also has a major connection to the refuge: he used to work there as a biologist when he was fresh out of college and still knows the majority of the employees, including the director of the refuge.
Shirley’s other pull with the refuge results from hunting for alligator eggs in one part of the year, and adult alligators during the other time of the year. He has the perfect temperament to work with today’s teenagers - he tells stories, makes jokes, teaches the kids how to call alligators - similar to ducks, and isn’t afraid to teach a teenage girl how to dissect a fish to find out how old it is or to properly hold a four foot long alligator so its tail won’t slap around.
The week begins Monday afternoon with 4-H members and 4-H agents drifting in. It’s one of the easiest days they’ll have until they get home. Tuesday was filled with crabbing, air boat rides through the marsh, history lessons on the refuge, learning how to throw a cast net, crawling out of the windows of a van that gets stuck in the marsh, a night hike and wrapping it all up with the movie “Shrek”.
Wednesday had a 5:00 a.m. wake up call to begin a “fun run” just under two miles to be able to view the sunrise over the marsh. And, yes, they did keep track of who came in first and second place. Shirley reported he came in first -- in the over 50 age bracket. Now school begins for the day with lecture on crabs and their habitat. Then the boat launches to tour the marsh and the entry to the Gulf of Mexico and to trawl for shrimp to view their growth. Lunch creeps in about here followed by a quick power nap. Afterward, there’s an ice chest of 13-15 count shrimp to shell for dinner that night. Also, there’s a class on fish and how their organs work and how to determine the age of the fish. Keep your running shoes on and camera handy because now it’s time to play with the baby alligators, and some grown ones for good luck, and then back to crabbing to add to tonights dinner menu. Now I lay me down do sleep...but only after “Shrek 2”.
Thursday’s adventure is on the road to Avery Island and a tour of the McIlhenney Tabasco Plant. It’s also a work day to help prevent that part of the bay from eroding as fast. One section has a good growth of marsh grass and another doesn’t, so its “take from Paul to pay Peter” by pulling out some of the denser grass areas to transplant into the area that needs the grass. Evening entertainment will be determined to see if the guys get to continue watching “The Military Channel” on the cable service.
Friday is a travel day with everyone going home. Shirley talks about how some of the campers pop up in his life periodically. One particular story was of a 4-H camper inspired by the science who went on to be a science teacher and began working with the 4-H program in school. Now, he’s funneling students into Marsh Maneuvers.
I had the opportunity to tag along with the campers on Wednesday. However, my view of sunrise was not during the fun run, but on the drive down to Rockerfeller Refuge. What’s left of Hwy. 82 is still there and most of the residents and camp owners have come a long way since Hurrican Rita. It’s still about an hour drive from Abbeville and you just have to remember to keep going when you think you’ve passed it and you’re only at Pecan Island School with another 20 minutes to go.
The drive in the morning had all the good signs of nature starting off the day with dew glistening on the grass. Area residents were moving about and the flow of company trucks and 18-wheelers full of oil field gear still make up the majority of traffic. The smell in the air is a little different along the drive now with the smell of salt in the air. The trees are still as big as ever, but just not as numerous and not as full of branches and leaves anymore. The cattle returning to their home pastures again and the numbers of small calves running around are just another sign of life moving on and growing.
At the Wednesday morning class, Shirley talked about the debate still continuing on the Turtle Excluder Device (TED) that American trawlers are required to use. “Mexico is not required to use the TED, and folks down there still hunt the shore-line for turtle eggs to consume along with the turtles as well for soup,” said Shirley. “Basically, the government told the shrimp trawlers to delete 15 percent of their catch and income.”
From there, class discussion turned to the life of a crab...to eat; not the problems of a complainer. Basically, they feed on the debris in the marsh, helping to keep it clean and allowing for new growth. Ashley Marceaux and Lindsey Bourque with AWCC teach the section on crabs and shrimp. The crabs actually molt out of their shells each year as they grow and then re-grow a new shell. Soft shell crabs are the ones caught during this molting stage that have not re-grown their shells.
About the time a child learns to walk (nine months to a year) is about the same time a crab will develop claws and still only be about the size of a dime. It takes about 12-14 moltings for a crab to reach adult stage according to Marceaux. The Latin name for crabs in our region is Calenetes Sapidus, which basically translates to Beautiful Swimmer -- otherwise known as a Blue Point Crab.
Bourque takes over on the shrimp section and tells the campers about the differences in white and brown shrimp. Brown shrimp come back to the marsh in late winter and move out to the Gulf in May. White shrimp reverse the process, staying in the marsh during the summer, and leaving in the fall when the temperatures get cooler. This is the part of Wildlife and Fisheries job to determine when the shrimp are grown enough to catch and then open the season for trawling each year.
From classroom to class on a boat, the group heads out to the marsh. George Melancon is a Fisheries Biologist at the refuge and is the pilot of our group’s boat. He tells us that the levees in Rockerfeller were built because of the salt water intrusion after all the oil companies got through dredging and drilling for oil. There are also sections of the refuge that are still waiting for Federal money to come in to make repairs to the control structures that work on the ebb and flow of the tide to keep the marsh growing and alive both on top of and under the waters.
Melancon talked about the importance of the structures for the water flow. “If we let all the salt water in, we’d lose all of the vegetation. That would be great for crabs and you’d most likely see a great increase in the catch. But after they’d eaten all of the vegetation, there wouldn’t be anymore food supply for them and you’d have the reverse problem of not being able to support much of any crab population. It’s basically a trade off in productivity, but then you continue the food source to keep the species available.”
He also spoke about the importance of the land owner in maintaining the marsh on their property. “If a land owner can’t hunt or fish on his camp, then his land is worthless,” said Melancon. “The levees are built to control about 4,000 acre sections and rebuilding the control gate that Hurricane Rita destroyed would cost about one million dollars.”
Rockerfeller Refuge is limited to individual fishing only with no commercial trawlers allowed. The shrimp limit is 10 pounds per boat.
At this point, we’ve reached the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, where the shoreline outlines the map lines on paper. The sight of the open expance of water has a very humbling effect when you’re in a boat about 20 feet long and six feet wide. The waves are constant but often vary in size. A storm is taking place east toward Cypremore Point and we’re feeling the effects of the wind and increased wave action along with some rain drops and threatening skies. Fortunately, it stays off to the east today.
The shore lines are lined with layers and layers of shells from oysters and mussels of all sizes. The shells are about two feet in height according to our guide. Melancon explained that “the shells you see stacked here won’t be in the same place tomorrow or next week. Every day, the tide pushes the shells further inland and onto the marsh grass. This exposes the mud beneath the grass and begins the erosion process. As for controlling erosion, the grass won’t last very long on its own. Each year, the shells are moved inland about 40 feet and that land is lost to the sea after that.”
Melancon also addressed the immediate problems Hurricane Rita brought to a battered shore. “Waves at the research center were 10 feet in height; here at the entrance to the gulf, the wave height was between 12-14 feet in height. When Rockerfeller was first donated to the state, there were 86,000 acres or marsh land; now, we’re down to 72,000 acres after erosion over the past 100 years.”
He also explained “that since man has tried to control the Mississippi River, problems have evolved that we don’t know how to control. The river used to switch around the area so it would drain into the Gulf and all the sediment would replace the land lost to erosion. Then everyone started building along the river and tried to control it when it would flood and now it’s directed to drain through New Orleans and it takes all that sediment and dumps it off the Intercontinental Shelf where it does no good.”
Melancon explained that some of the Mississippi River sediment does get diverted into the Atchafalaya and does flow back to the refuge. “There’s a section by Morgan City that is getting about 30 per cent of the river and that sediment is starting to build new land.”
The ride back to the research station was like driving back from vacation. Everyone was settling down and drifting off to sleep. The sound of the motor and the pitching of the boat was just enough to induce a nap for some. Other campers were watching the shore line move by and one was busy texting messages on her cell phone. Forget how enormous the sight of the Gulf, the smell of salt in the air and how unique the marsh is to this area -- it’s only strong enough to hold the attention span of a teenager for that short a time.
Mark Shirley doesn’t look at the cell phone calls or the texting as entirely a bad thing for these campers. “It means that they’ve gotten the message about what the problems are from up close. They’re also telling others about all the cool things they did at 4-H camp and maybe it’ll be enough to make someone else want to join.”
Shirley also believes in getting the campers active in thinking of ways to work on erosion problems. “Thursday night, they have an assignment to come up with a proposal for coastal restoration that includes the Teche, Mermentau and Calcasieu Basins. These kids are smart; over the years, we’ve given tests at the beginning and ending of camp that show a 25 per cent increase in knowledge about this material.”
He also talked about the early days of Marsh Maneuvers where they stayed at a camp owned then by USL. “It was very rustic; pretty much a cabin with an enclosed porch and a box fan to keep the mosquitos off of you. Then there were the years at Grand Terre just past Grand Isle. It was a research area with the emphasis on marine life as a barrier island. Instead of crabs and shrimp, we had a lot of fish; mainly speckeled trout.”
Wednesday afternoon’s class was devoted to alligators. Ashley Marceaux explained the problems faced by land owners and alligator farmers back in the 1960-1970’s. “Alligators were put on an endangered list and you couldn’t harvest any of them. It took the conservative use of the alligator and turned it into no use preservation instead of a renewable natural resource. Alligator farmers return 12 per cent of their animals back to the wild each year. Now, tanneries world-wide won’t take an alligator hide without a permit tag on it to make sure that the conservative population management is maintained.”
Basically, there are two types of alligators, ours and the ones in China along the Yangtzee water system. Ours stretch from the Carolina coastlines through Florida and around to the Gulf shores of Texas. They hatch from eggs after a 65 day incubation period where the temperature of the egg determines the sex of the animal. Marceaux explained that the eggs on the top of the nest closer to the body heat of the mother alligator around 90 degrees will become males, while those eggs on the bottom of the nest around 85 degrees will become females.
This unique factor was discovered in 1984 by Mark Ferguson, an Irish scientist, who was studying alligators to research ways to correct cleft palate in humans before they were born with the deformity. Ferguson had earned degrees as a medical doctor, a biochemist, and as a dentist by the time he was 27 years old.
Current research on alligators is being conducted at McNeese State University for antiobiotic use by Dr. Mark Merchant, according to Shirley. When an alligator is injured in the wild, its covering will grow over the damaged area and heal itself naturally.
Alligators have also grown to a $13.4 million industry in Louisiana. The 2007 harvest of wild alligators was 34,817. There is little waste with the alligator as the meat is sold as well as the hide itself.
Following an afternoon of crabbing and keeping the chicken bait away from the alligators, I finally had to make my way home. I would have loved to stay for barbque shrimp and boiled crabs for dinner, but, by then, I’d have been asleep driving back over the Intercoastal Canal bridge. It’s one of the few bridges that I like to cross over as slow as possible. The view out over the marsh land is incredible, especially during a golden sunset when all the rice fields glisten and the canals and levees darken, as they outline the land they define and protect.
Traffic along the road home is mostly made up of company pickup trucks and 18-wheelers loaded with oil field equipment. The road is severely rutted and has been patched so many times the car cd player comes to a complete stop. Looking at the edge of the road, the asphalt is crumbling away.
The drive home is a little on the sad side though. Camps named Pop a Top, Bon File’, and numerous others with equally funny named sites, dot the road. But for all the improvements made, there are still too many homes and camps left as reminders of the destruction a hurricane can bring to an area. The parking lot at Coastal Bar is packed tighter than the limbs and leaves left hanging on many of the old oak trees that line Hwy. 82.
The name “chenier” means a place where oaks grow, and a topographical map of Louisiana shows where the cheniers, or high ridges, are along the Gulf Coast. These trees along the highway show years of bending to the wind and have a lot of new growth, but there are just as many bare spots left as reminders of past storms. But no matter how battered the trees look, they are always the proud sentinals that line the Grand Chenier.
The students participating in this week’s Marsh Maneuvers were: East Baton Rouge Parish - Scott Malhiet, Tyler Canal, Candice Francois, Amber Landry and agent Beverly Bailey. Avoyelles Parish - Simone Scallan, Amanda Broussard Kera Bordelon, Krista Bordelon, Cody Marcotte, Luke Vanderlick, Gerald Ducote and agent Trent Clark. Acadia Parish - Josepha Thevis, Claire Bourgeois and Steffan McBride. Terrebone Parish - Cindy Edwards and Rebecca LeBlanc. Shrimp for class and Wednesday nights dinner were provided by Gulf South Seafood in Intracoastal owned by Ninh Tran.