Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.
BAYOU LA BATRE, ALABAMA, May 3, 2010 — There’s a run on seafood on the Gulf Coast. The crabbers have pulled their traps, the feds have halted commercial fishing in much of the Gulf. And everyone knows you can’t catch shrimp and fish in a sea of oil.
Some say they can smell the slick already, though it’s still offshore. They talk about this weekend’s seafood dinner as if it were a ceremonial last meal, the last chance to taste what living on the Gulf is about.
I skipped the seafood. I had to see it one more time, as if it were the last time, that dance of fish in the spring tide at Grand Bay.
On those rare spring days when the sun, moon and earth are aligned, as they were during this weekend’s full moon, tides are unusually strong. The tug of the great spring tide draws the Gulf higher and higher into Grand Bay’s miles of marsh, making shallow pools of the sun-baked salt pannes. More rarely still, persistent winds from the south egg the tide on, driving it into every nook and cranny of the bay.
It’s the time of year when the marsh revels in its connection to the Gulf, bathing in the unusually high tides, soaking up all of the energy and nutrients the ocean sends its way, open to all the waves can deliver.
Fish, crabs, insects, birds converge on the pools. In the bright sun of spring, in the clear pools of the flooded salt pannes, the fish are heedless, dancing around your feet. The sailfin mollies spread their big top-sails and tails, flutter around the females in a display of extraordinary colors, deep blues and iridescent orange.
I recognize the gulf killifish, flushed blue, silver and green like mother of pearl. It spawns, I’m told, only on the spring tides. The rare salt marsh topminnow is here. There are others, young redfish, tiny shrimp, so many other creatures I don’t recognize, have never been able to document.
I think of all the people I meant to bring here, to show them what living on the Gulf is all about.
Sergio Pierluissi joins me, as soon as he gets free of taking calls at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s spill response command center. He’d never seen it before. “Wow,” he said, when we stepped from the pine meadows and into the great expanse of marsh stretching to the horizon.
It was already late in the day, but Sergio chased the clatter of rail calls through the dense, prickly marsh of needlerush and out into the open salt-grass meadows of the pannes.
We drifted through the pannes, taking photos, taking it in, documenting all we could of the frenzy of life in one of the most diverse estuaries on the northern Gulf. We reached the edge of the great salt panne where it dipped into Grand Bay, and stood stunned as we watched it greedily scooping up whatever the Gulf sent its way.
A few hundred feet out, the waves were rolling over the submerged bar of sand and seagrasses that is Grand Bay’s only protection from the Gulf.
“It’s too bad you had to show me this place now,” Sergio said as we waded out of the bay and back into the marsh. I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. Look.
Beneath a hood of dried grasses, just barely beyond the reach of the waves, a clutch of burgundy-spotted eggs. The rail.
“She’d better hatch those eggs in a hurry,” Sergio said.
Squadrons of ibis were turning just above our heads. There were cries of gulls and pelicans. A pair of scuffling male willets emitted their piercing falsetto calls. The ospreys stood still in the air, pointed into the stiff winds blowing steadily now from the heart of the Gulf.
(Image 1: A clutch of rail eggs hidden under the marsh grass, where the Gulf waters lap against Grand Bay. Image 2: A green river of salt grass marks the salt pannes of Grand Bay, where the mollies dance on the spring tide. Image credit: Bill Finch/TNC.)