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Shipping Industry Worries As Tiny Bug Threatens Marsh

Travis Lux
Todd Baker of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) surveys a stand of Roseau cane from the bow of a boat near the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Louisiana’s coast is disappearing for a few reasons: natural sinking of the land, saltwater intrusion, and sea level rise.


Now there’s another threat: a little tiny bug from the other side of the ocean. It’s killing plants and destroying marshes at the mouth of the river, worrying the state and the shipping industry.


Down in the marsh near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Roseau cane is everywhere. It grows tall and bright green, as far as the eye can see. But suddenly, a lot of it is dying. That has state officials worried, so they’re sending biologists like Todd Baker, with Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, to check it out.


From the front of a boat, Baker bends over and grabs a long, slender cane. It’s brown and half-dead. He peels it apart to reveal the killer -- a tiny little insect.


“So if you look at your say your fingernail on your pinky,” he says, “The adult version can get almost that big.”


It’s sometimes called a scale, sometimes called mealy bug. But no matter what you call it, Baker says it’s an invasive species -- it comes from either China or Japan. He’s not sure how it got here, maybe by boat. Regardless, they’re hungry, and they love Roseau cane.


Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
A close-up view of the insect that's contributing to the Roseau cane die-offs. Once it finds a good spot, it hunkers down and creates a scale-shaped sheath around itself, to further anchor it in place. It's this appearance that gives it the "scale" nickname.

“It burrows, or puts a little nose, into the cane and withdraws the sap,” says Baker, “and that's what kills it.”


And when the cane dies, so do its roots.


“It takes a lot to kill it,” he says, “The fact that it’s been dying off this quickly is alarming. I’ve never seen anything like this.”


And when the roots die, the soil loosens and can easily be washed away into the main river channel. Lots of land has been lost already.


“Thousands of acres over a short period of time,” Baker says.


The Army Corps -- which dredges the river -- and the state found out about the problem about a year ago. From the stern of his huge ship, a pilot looked down at the marsh as he made his way up the river. He noticed that the cane looked a little patchy and reported it.


Captain Michael Miller says it’s “a big big big big issue for Louisiana.” He’s the president of the Associated Branch Pilots -- a group that pilots ships on the Mississippi. He worries the dying cane will make the job harder.  


Roseau is what holds the river banks together. So if the banks start to disintegrate, that could require more maintenance for the Army Corps.


Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
Captain Michael Miller worries the dying cane will affect navigation along the Mississippi River.

“It’ll have to be constant dredging to keep that channel open,” says Miller. “Because it’ll be -- the sands from the Gulf of Mexico and mud and whatnot will be able to wash back and forth.”


So, what can be done to control it? That’s what Dr. Rodrigo Diaz is trying to figure that out. He’s an entomologist at LSU -- he studies insects -- and he’s leading the team looking for solutions. He says there are a couple initial ideas, but they all have drawbacks.


In China, for example, they burn the cane to get rid of the bug. But that’s not an option here -- burning a bunch of dead grass next to oil pipelines isn’t a good idea. They could use pesticides, but that might hurt fish and shrimp.


Before they propose any kind of solution, Diaz says they just need to know more. They’re not sure, for example, if the insect is entirely to blame.


“Seems to be it’s a combination of stressors that’s actually resulted in the die offs,” says Diaz.


Stressors like saltwater intrusion and erosion. So Diaz and his research team are going to run some experiments to figure that out. He says it’ll be at least six months before they get their first results.


If you’re thinking that sounds like a long time for such a fast-moving problem, Diaz says he gets it. But good science takes time.


“We want to do it properly,” he says, “rather than going in and spending millions of dollars to do something that may do more harm, you know?”


Which is why they don’t want to just spray pesticides or burn all the dead cane off right away.


In the meantime, though, the bugs aren’t losing their appetite.


Credit Travis Lux / WWNO
What was once a thick stand of Roseau cane near the mouth of the Mississippi River, now sits open water.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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