It’s a sky-blue beautiful morning, and with temperatures holding in the low- to mid-70s, it’s this year’s first real fall day in Pointe-au-Chien, Louisiana. Located very close to the Gulf of Mexico, this coastal community is home to the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, and as one person puts it, they have lived here since “time immemorial.”
Unfortunately, with the devastating effects of ongoing coastal erosion, time may be running out for these proud and resilient people’s land. But the battle isn’t over yet, and that’s why there are more than 75 volunteers gathered here today to help with coastal restoration. The main ingredient to this rebuilding effort is oyster shell, and under the direction of Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL), volunteers will be using bags of recycled oyster shells to help restore an oyster reef. The bags of shells are carefully placed to broaden the size of the reef, protecting the coast and creating a “living shoreline” where more oysters, crabs, fish, plants and other species will live, thrive and expand the reef.
Pointe-au-Chien tribal elder, 69-year-old Theresa Dardar, says that keeping oyster reefs vibrant is a tradition.
“It’s always meant something to me,” says Dardar. “My dad was an oyster fisherman, and every year, the fishermen would seed the reef by shoveling in shells. The living shoreline does the same thing.”
CRCL’s Oyster Shell Recycling Program (OSRP) supplies the oyster shells, which are collected from New Orleans area restaurants. For the past several years, Chefs Brigade and its restaurant partners have been part of the program. After collecting shells from the restaurants, CRCL and its volunteer force put the shells into marine-grade bags. From there, the bags are delivered to the coast and, in this case, Pointe-au-Chien.
CRCL’s OSRP coordinator, Darrah Bach, says the program delivers multiple benefits for many people.
“The beauty of this program is its ability to reach so many with message and impact,” Bach says. “Diners learn about the importance of the food on their plate, restaurants have the opportunity to make a difference, tribes protect sacred sites, and fisheries are enhanced.”
The overall numbers are impressive too. Since the program’s inception in 2014, more than 13.5 million pounds of oyster shells – shells that would have been banished to a landfill – have been recycled and 8,000 feet of living shoreline have been created within five reefs. The pandemic, however, challenged the program, with many restaurants closed to the public and fewer shells available, and OSRP had to go on hiatus. Bach says it was during this time that CRCL began its partnership with Chefs Brigade.
“Chefs Brigade focuses on connecting, organizing and educating across food sectors, so working with OSRP made a lot of sense,” Bach says. “Small businesses can participate, and these restaurants are strengthening their connection to the local seafood industry. With Chefs Brigade’s assistance, we were able to revive our program as we returned to full capacity after closing during COVID-19 shutdowns. Chefs Brigade has supported the program ever since.”
Before putting the volunteers to work today, CRCL provides a history lesson on the effects of coastal land loss. CRCL Coastal Advisory Council member Al DuVernay III, who is a retired geologist/paleontologist, holds up two maps: one from 1927 and the other from 2012. DuVernay talks about the 1927 flood, the worst in U.S. history, and how it led to the federal government constructing a levee system to protect communities, but also had the disastrous consequence of putting a straitjacket on the Mississippi River, preventing it from periodically providing life-giving sediment, fresh water and nutrients to coastal wetland communities like Pointe-au-Chien. Basically that strict leveeing of the river was starving the deltaic plain and preventing it from creating new and maintaining existing land.
Around the same time, oil was discovered in coastal Louisiana, and to get to it, thousands of interior canals through the wetlands were channeled. These canals allowed for saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico, killing vegetation and contributing to more and more coastal land loss. The two maps illustrate the incredible scale – it’s estimated that Louisiana has lost an area comparable to the size of Delaware – with plenty of arable land for farming in 1927 compared to the 2012 map where much of it is open water.
“In 1927, this was a very viable community with farming, fishing and many ecosystems,” says DuVernay. “You could step off the road and walk to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s now a pretty sad sight compared to what you would have seen in ‘27.”
He’s right. When you look around, you see little land, and where there are houses, many of them are in disrepair. Many tribe members weren’t able to get federal funding for fixing their homes because of succession issues following Hurricane Ida. But those harsh realities haven’t stopped the Point-au-Chien tribe or CRCL from taking action.
CRCL has been working in this community since 2000, and today, the volunteers will be assisting in the second phase of turning oyster shells into a reef. First, the volunteers set up an assembly line of passing an oyster shell sack from one person to another until it ends up on a flat boat, which will then take the shells and volunteers to the developing reef.
It’s about a 20-minute boat ride to the reef, and along the way, you can see evidence of the wetlands loss that DuVernay described. Due to the saltwater intrusion, which also affects drinking water, there are very few trees and most are dead, standing in testimony to what was once a vibrant estuary. Stopping Mother Nature, however, isn’t an impossible venture, especially with a little help, and once the volunteers arrive at the reef, you see how the oyster shells are making a difference.
The bags of shells that are placed on the reef have become a barrier against the breaking waves, and behind the shells are wetlands with tall, fertile grass. That’s partially due to oysters and oyster reefs improving water quality, allowing plants, flora and fauna to grow. For instance, according to CRCL’s website, Pointe-au-Chien Community Reef monitoring has shown an increase in spat oysters, which is the larval form of an oyster, and a 15 percent increase in barnacles from 2020 to 2021.
Pulling the boat up next to the reef, the volunteers again set up an assembly line, and the end point is where the last bag was placed. Throughout the day, boat after boat is filled with shells and volunteers and then brought to the community reef. It’s definitely hard work and also immediately rewarding when you see bag after bag extending the reef’s size. CRCL makes sure the volunteers are hydrated and well-fed with lunchtime po-boys.
CRCL is continuously monitoring the long-term effects of the program. Annual reports on each of the four reefs reveal new oyster growth and other ecosystem benefits such as enhancing local fisheries and reducing shoreline erosion by as much as 50 percent. And with the new tax credit available to Louisiana restaurants that recycle oyster shells, there should be more than enough shells to keep the program thriving.
By the end of the day, the volunteers are a little tired, but also reinvigorated by what they have accomplished that day. How many people can say they spent the day helping to rebuild Louisiana’s coast? Still, DuVernay’s land loss maps are hard to forget. Louisiana has lost so much land – wetlands that were breeding grounds to innumerable crabs, oysters, fish, vast species of birds, plants, mammals and, of course, humans like the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe – that restoring them can seem overwhelming. But when you talk to Theresa Dardar, you get the sense that it is possible if everyone is willing to make the effort, and just like planting a tree for shade that you will never enjoy, this is about preservation and future generations.
“We need a lot more,” Dardar simply says.