Beach and Dune Projects Near Grand Isle & Fourchon Play Big Role in Restoring Barataria Basin

chris macaluso
Countless anglers leaving from Grand Isle and Port Fourchon venture to Louisiana’s Caminada Headland each year in search of speckled trout, redfish, flounder and the occasional drag-screaming jack crevalles and sharks.

Others go there to simply put out crab lines and enjoy a relaxing day beachcombing and building sand castles with the kids even though they may not realize that’s where they are. To those catching the fish and the crabs, the areas are simply called Elmer’s Island or The Fourchon.

“It’s hard to even estimate how many thousands of people fish that beach every summer,” said Capt. Frank Dreher, who operates Laid Back Charter out of Grand Isle and regularly takes his clients to the Elmer’s and Fourchon beaches. “Especially when we get those light southeast winds in July and August, it looks like you can hop from boat to boat as far as you can see and it seems like someone in each boat is fighting a fish. The fishing out there is just that good.”

Stretching for about 14 miles in all, Caminada Headland makes up a large part of the bottom of the Barataria Basin and contains the beach and marsh spanning Belle Pass eastward all the way to Caminada Pass at Grand Isle. It was created by sediment deposits from the Mississippi River centuries ago when Bayou Lafourche served as the river’s mouth.

Each summer, the area gives up limits of speckled trout and redfish and baskets of fat blue crabs. Unfortunately, because of a lack of sediment input, hurricanes and saltwater intrusion weakening back-barrier marshes, it has also been giving up its beaches, dunes and marshes to the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of nearly 45 feet per year for the last century.

The area was also home to some of the worst onshore oiling in the months and years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010. Cleanup efforts further damaged the headland’s beaches and dunes, making the soils more susceptible to erosion.

The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) is aggressively tackling the loss by investing more than $220 million dollars in three projects aimed at rebuilding damaged beaches and dunes and enhancing storm-ravaged back-barrier marshes in the area. In late summer 2013, crews began pumping sand mined from more than 27 miles away on Ship Shoal onto the beach near Belle Pass in phase one of the Caminada Headland Beach and Dune Restoration project.

The goal is to have more than six miles of beaches and dunes restored and native vegetation planted by the end of 2015, according to CPRA. Phase two, which will restore the remaining nearly eight miles of beaches and dunes, is slated to begin construction before fall 2014, and should be completed by late 2016 thanks to funds from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation which is distributing $1.2 billion in oil spill penalties to build barrier islands, headlands and freshwater and sediment diversions in Louisiana.

At the same time, the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act Task Force has approved construction of a joint project between CPRA and the Environmental Protection Agency that will rebuild more than 300 acres of marsh behind the newly-repaired beaches and dunes in the next two years.

The three projects perfectly represent the kinds of habitat restoration and sustainability projects recommended by recreational fishermen, scientists and researchers and conservation groups across the five Gulf of Mexico states in a report released in October 2013 by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership titled “Gulf of Mexico Recreational Fisheries: Recommendations for Restoration, Recovery and Sustainability.”

Simone Maloz, executive director of Restore or Retreat, a non-profit group that advocates for coastal restoration and hurricane protection efforts in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parish, participated in a workshop organized by the TRCP, Center for Coastal Conservation, American Sportfishing Association and Coastal Conservation Association Louisiana in New Orleans in May 2013 to identify projects listed in the report. Focusing oil spill recovery efforts on projects in the CPRA’s Coastal Master Plan that restore critical natural protection features in the Barataria Basin is vitally important to communities and critical infrastructure throughout Lafourche, Jefferson and St. Charles Parish, she said.

“The beach and dunes of the Caminada Headland are literally the line in the sand between the Gulf and Port Fourchon and Hwy. 1, critical infrastructure for our state’s economy, America’s energy and the boat launches, marinas, camps and other businesses important to Fourchon and Grand Isle,” Maloz said. “Comprehensively restoring this headland, a critical first line of defense against hurricanes, is an important step in accomplishing what the state’s Coastal Master Plan is aiming to in the Barataria Basin. These projects will work with others that restore barrier islands, ridges, interior marshes and divert freshwater and sediment from the Mississippi River to help make the estuary function properly again from top to bottom.”

Dreher said he’s had a first-hand look at some of the other projects to restore beaches and dunes in the lower Barataria Basin over the last few years and likes the results. He compared the restoration of the Caminada Headlands to recently-completed restoration projects at Bay Joe Wise and East Grand Terre Island, both east of Grand Isle.

“When the projects were being built, the water was obviously dirty in the area and the fishing changed some from what we were used to seeing when the islands were falling apart,” he said. “But, before you know it, the fishing is back to normal and even better, in some cases. The sand bars and troughs and all the humps and irregular bottom that make the beaches productive come back quickly. The rebuilt marshes look healthy. The birds and fish are all over them. I’m looking forward to seeing the same things at the rebuilt Elmer’s and Fourchon beaches as well.”

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