All photos by Rick Olivier
Recreational charter-fishing captains don’t elicit the same sympathies given to, say, fleets of weather-beaten men eking out a living harvesting oysters from the punishing seas. Over the last several decades, many have abandoned commercial fishing in favor of what seems like the easy life: Charter-fishing captains smile while working, and wear very expensive sunglasses. They make good money doing what they love, catching limits of redfish and trout before getting off work around noon, their polo shirts still clean. As such, they’re rarely who we picture when we worry for the worsening welfare of Louisiana fishermen.
But the state’s roughly 1,000 registered charter-fishing captains (up from 644 just eight years ago) represent a large, and growing, economy—especially when lumped into the bigger category of recreational fishing, or the behemoth, tourism—and they face as many struggles as anyone else whose livelihood depends upon Louisiana’s coastline.
Charter captains are currently still deciphering the newest Coastal Master Plan introduced by Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) in 2017. The Master Plan details 124 projects (79 restoration, 13 structural protection, and 32 nonstructural risk-reduction projects) that will hopefully build and protect more than eight hundred square miles of new land over the next fifty years. “In Louisiana, no two places are the same—there’s a lot of difference just within one or two miles,” Bren Haase of the CPRA pointed out, “which is why we expend so much effort in planning: there is no one answer or solution for our entire coast.”
Depending on whom you speak with in which coastal Louisiana town, the Master Plan’s projects will either ease fishermen’s woes, or deepen them.
Charter captains are split regarding the Master Plan’s five billion dollars’ worth of diversion projects, which fall under the restoration category. Sediment diversions, in this case, mean channels cut into levees and along the Mississippi River. These cuts allow river silt to flow into brackish and saltwater bayous and ponds where, for decades, the land has been sinking and the marshes disappearing. These Mississippi diversions do build the marshland up, but the accompanying fresh river water dilutes the salt water, which greatly effects ecosystems—for good and for bad, depending on your occupation.
Some charter fishermen appreciate the diversions for building back depleted marshes. Others despise the diversions for flushing away the salt water that redfish and especially speckled trout prefer. “At Salty Dog Charters, we catch bull redfish,” said Captain Markham Dickson. “Bull reds are big and they look good on Facebook, so we want to keep a good population out there.” For these reasons, Dickson stands on the side of the salt. He takes customers far out east to Shell Beach on Lake Borgne, where a nineteenth-century fort stands crumbling and a giant metal crucifix pays homage to the 163 St. Bernard Parish residents killed when Hurricane Katrina ripped straight up the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel.
“I started fishing Shell Beach when it was salty,” Dickson said. “Then [in 2009] they dammed the MRGO, which lowered the salinity.” Still one of the saltier areas within driving distance of New Orleans, Shell Beach now sits in the projected potential impact area of the Master Plan’s scheduled Central Wetlands Diversion and Mid-Breton Diversion, which will allow hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water into the Shell Beach area each second.
“While the fresher water does create more hydrilla plants, which keeps the waters nice and clean,” said Dickson, “on the banklines where you would catch redfish, you are now catching largemouth bass and a lot of brim instead.”
Captain Ron “Ahab” Broadus, who has explored the massive, complex Delacroix marsh system east of the Mississippi for almost thirty years, prefers to put his clients on speckled trout. “You can always catch redfish all year around in Delacroix,” he claimed, explaining that trout are much pickier hunters, who follow the salty water for breeding reasons, and also because salt clarifies the water, making prey more easily visible. Freshwater and silt diversions, of course, muddy the waters for the sake of building land.
In 1991, Louisiana built the Caernarvon Diversion fifteen miles south of New Orleans with support of Breton Sound oyster fisherman who were convinced that the salt influx would eventually kill off their industry. From 1992–1994, research by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Coastal Restoration Division showed a net increase in marshland of 406 acres, but the structure—a freshwater diversion, not a sediment diversion—successfully freshened the water.
Then in 2012, the Mississippi broke through the natural levee on its own, creating the Mardi Gras Pass, which still pushes river water into Breton Sound. “The river over time has started eating away at Mardi Gras Pass, where now it’s like a hundred feet wide, and something like thirty feet deep,” said Broadus of the pass. “So much freshwater is being pushed straight from the Mississippi, and there are no controls.”
The oyster industry recently spent two hundred thousand dollars creating a study, hoping to gain approval from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the US Army Corps of Engineers to close up Mardi Gras Pass. That may be a tough sell, since Mardi Gras Pass has already been proven to be building land, and is substantially benefitting several upcoming Master Plan projects in the area, including the Breton Sediment Diversion and the Breton Marsh Creation project, which is expected to create twelve thousand acres of marsh in Uhlan Bay.
Like many fishermen who prize the saltwater, Broadus would rather see sand dredged from the river to rebuild land in the marsh—a much more expensive procedure. Either way, he understands that something must be done. “If I get a guy I took out last year, and helped him and a friend bring home seventy-five trout and fifteen reds, and now this year the only thing you can offer him today is redfish, they’ll say, ‘We’ll wait.’ So the freshwater is having an economic impact.”
Just inland from the coast and near to New Orleans, Lafitte, Louisiana, already often looks, smells, and tastes like freshwater. “In Lafitte we always have less salt, and yet we still we have a little bit of everything: oysters, shrimp, crabs,” attested Captain Maurice d’Aquin, who’s helped tourists catch reds and the occasional speckled trout in Lafitte for several decades. “Some of the best fisheries are where that brackish and that saltwater mix, so you have two types of water and two types of game fish competing for the same two types of bait.”
And so, d’Aquin also welcomes the scheduled Mid-Breton and Mid-Barataria diversions, recently fast-tracked for permitting, with two more diversions (Lower Breton and Lower Barataria) still in the planning processes for the area. “Wetland loss has the biggest impact on the charter captains’ way of living,” said d’Aquin. “Out here you see it directly. After one storm, you can see that we’ve lost forty or fifty yards of coastline. Fishing camps on the edges that I stayed at back when I was a kid are already gone. We are soon gonna be fishing open bays, and it’s just not gonna be the same.”
D’Aquin is happy to focus on Lafitte’s abundant redfish, which don’t seem to mind the fresh water—whereas trout already generally avoid Lafitte’s abundant fresh water most of the year, especially in the warmer months. “The trout will still move in to some of these fresh water ponds though,” d’Aquin said with confidence. “Lake Salvador is pretty fresh, and trout will move in there when it’s winter and they’re looking for warmer, deeper water.”
Down the coast to the east of the Mississippi, residents of Buras, Louisiana, don’t worry as much about losing the marsh.
“The marsh is gone,” declared Captain Ryan Lambert, head of Cajun Fishing Adventures. To read the whole article at 64 Parishes, CLICK HERE.
Or CLICK HERE to watch a news video about Louisiana’s latest Master Plan.