Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Q&A with Gay Gomez, author of The Louisiana Coast: Guide to an American Wetland

Gay Gomez is associate professor of geography at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Gomez, a professional nature guide and longtime activist and champion for the state's wetlands, has served on the board of directors for the Coalistion to Restore Coastal Louisiana and the Louisiana Ornithological Society. She is actively involved in many other organizations and is the author of The Louisiana Coast: Guide to an American Wetland.

  1. What is a wetland environment? And, why should we preserve them?

"Wetlands are transition environments between dry land and open water. They are places where standing water is present for all or part of the year, and, because of this, they support vegetation that is adapted to saturated soil conditions. In the Gulf Coast region, swamps and marshes predominate. Swamps are forested wetlands, while marshes feature many species of grasses, sedges, rushes, and submerged aquatic vegetation. 'Water brings life,' and these wetland habitats are high in both plant and animal diversity. Humans also are part of these ecosystems; we impact them by managing water and wildlife and use them for a variety of commercial and recreational activities, from bird watching to seafood harvesting. Without coastal wetlands, valuable fish and shellfish like brown shrimp, white shrimp, redfish (red drum) speckled trout (spotted sea trout), gulf menhaden, blue crabs, and American oysters would not have a place to grow to adulthood. Without these wetlands, many species of waterfowl and other wildlife would not have a refuge in winter, or a place to breed in summer, or a spot to rest and feed during migration."

Photo by Gay Gomez at the Cameron East Jetty Park and Pier, Camero, LA

2. In your book, The Louisiana Coast: Guide to an American Wetland, you describe the coast as a "place of interaction among land, people, and ideas." Can you tell us more about this connection between the land and local people? Why is this connection unique to the Louisiana coast?

"People are an integral part of the Louisiana coastal environment. Generations of families of many ethnicities have adapted to the opportunities and challenges of the region, which include a long growing season, bountiful fishery, and location along the Mississippi and central flyways, as well as threats from hurricanes, storm surges, flooding and insects. Louisiana coastal culture reflects these adaptations in its architecture, food ways, wetland and wildlife management, commercial and recreational activities and attitude toward life. According to 2007 U.S. Census estimates, approximately 47% of Louisiana’s population lives in the state’s coastal parishes. There is a strong emotional attachment and sense of identity associated with living in or near the coast and using its resources. People here feel we are part of the coast, and it is part of us."

3. Over many years, hurricane damage, erosion, human land development, and the byproducts of oil exploration have taken their toll on the coast. What are the specific, long-term implications of the recent BP oil spill with which you are most concerned?

"I’m concerned about the presence and effects of both oil and toxic dispersants in our wetlands, on our beaches, and in our marine environment. All these habitats are interconnected; foul one habitat and the others will also be affected. I fear the contaminants will have long-lasting effects on our fisheries and of course on the entire food web. I’m also wondering how the presence of oil will affect water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. If the presence of oil results in higher water temperature, this could cause hurricanes to intensify as they pass over the warmer area. I recall how rapidly Hurricane Katrina strengthened to a category 5 storm as it passed over a warm water eddy west of Florida in 2005. On the subject of hurricanes, I’m concerned that a hurricane and storm surge crossing oil-impacted wetlands will both convey oil further into fragile wetland areas and cause land loss where wetland plants have already succumbed to the suffocating effects of the oil."

Photo courtesy of Gay Gomez. Shrimp boat and the Gulf of Mexico shoreline at Holly Beach, LA.

4. You also discuss coastal restoration at length, in your book. The environmental devastation associated with this spill seems to be massive and widespread, with broad implications. What can individuals do now to aid both in recovery from the spill and long-term restoration?

"Individuals can stay informed about the spill and can learn about its impacts on coastal wetlands by exploring sites like the coalition to restore coastal Louisiana,, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Becoming informed about and supporting coastal restoration, and urging your U.S. congressmen and senators to do likewise, will also help. One way you can support the gulf coast seafood harvesters and businesses is by refusing to buy imported shrimp, crabs and oysters; don’t let the spill be an opportunity for foreign competitors to steal the market from domestic producers and suppliers. In addition, people might want to help by coming to the gulf coast and directly patronizing businesses impacted by the spill. There is much to see and do, even if fishing and swimming are currently unavailable in some areas."

5. Tourism will, no doubt, be affected by the spill. Will it be safe for families to visit the coast this summer? If so, what are some of your favorite, must-see spots?

"I believe tourism is still a possibility, especially eco-tourism. It is still possible to visit many wildlife refuges and coastal communities. Some of my favorite spots in Louisiana are the Creole Nature Trail in Cameron Parish, Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish, and the Louisiana Great Gulf Coast Birding Trail, which stretches across the state’s entire coast region. My book, The Louisiana Coast: Guide to an American Wetland, has information on these and other locations.

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