Bryan Piazza is the Atchafalaya program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana. He is a wetland ecologist with a Ph.D. in oceanography and coastal sciences from Louisiana State University; his specialties are coastal wetland ecology and restoration as well as the ecology of large river systems.
As oil swirls around the Gulf of Mexico, we all watch anxiously and wonder where it’s going to go. But before the oil washes ashore, there is much scientific work to do. Over the last few weeks, I have been working with fellow scientists from LSU, USGS, and NOAA to collect what scientists call “pre-condition data” at the NOAA Mussel Watch sites in coastal Louisiana — data on these ecosystems before the oil hits them.
These sites are located across Louisiana’s coastal marshes and bays — and because Louisiana produces the majority of the oysters consumed in the United States, it was very important to get data from these sites prior to any oil penetration into the wetlands and bays. I collected data both east and west of the Mississippi River. The first place is called Bay Gardene, and it is located in lower Breton Sound, east of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. I also collected data farther west at sites in Sister Lake, located south of Houma, Louisiana.
What are we collecting? At each site, we used standardized techniques to collect water, soil and soil infauna (small invertebrates like worms and snails) samples for hydrocarbon analysis. We also collected oysters from the bay bottoms. To do this, we dragged an oyster dredge behind the boat for three minutes and then lifted it out of the water to collect the oysters from it (see photo above of me with some of the oysters). The dredge rides along the bottom and contains teeth that scrape the bottom, like a rake or a comb. There is a net fastened with metal rings to the frame, and the oysters are captured into the net, while mud and smaller things pass right through.
We are all tied to this land. Louisiana’s coastal wetlands are very important for people not only in Louisiana, but the entire country. They provide and transport energy and goods that move through our economy. They provide the nursery areas for young fish and shrimp to grow, and these are the seafood products that we all love to eat. And these services that we all enjoy provide a livelihood for many folks across Louisiana.
These marshes are massive, but they are disappearing rapidly. And this oil could provide an additional stressor in an already imperiled system. So, it is important that we support scientific efforts to understand how this stressor may affect these marshes both alone and in the context of the other stressors that affect these marshes and the critters that live there – both in the short-term and the long-term. That way we can work with our partners to design the most effective ways to help the marsh recover.
This is an unprecedented event, and as the oil now begins to enter the coastal marshes, we will need this work to understand the effects. I feel that this work, in concert with the extensive and comprehensive monitoring network that state and USGS scientists have created across the Louisiana coastal zone, will help ensure that we have a good handle on what we had prior to any largescale impacts. While the oil spill saddens me deeply, our scientific expertise in Louisiana gives me hope.
(Image: Bryan Piazza with dredged oysters. Image courtesy of Bryan Piazza/TNC.)