A Louisiana tribe is losing cultural sites to coastal erosion. Oyster reefs could help.
For the past six years, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe has battled to stop its historic earthen Indian mounds from slipping into the sea, looking to the power of oyster shells to protect them. Now, they’ve expanded that effort.
The tribe has lived in the area for centuries, forced south as Louisiana was colonized, and the mounds that past members built have a range of uses. Some might’ve held homes, others were used for ceremonies and some were burial sites, said Lori Stewart, a member of the tribe.
“The mounds are really significant because we do have some of our ancestors that are buried there, and so we don't want to see that washed away,” she said. “That's sacred to us.”
In late September, volunteers traveled down to the community of Pointe-aux-Chenes on the southern tip of Terrebonne Parish, prepared to transfer and stack 40-pound sacks of recycled oyster shells against the eroding bank of a complex of mounds.
This was just the first phase of a new 300-foot-long oyster reef planned next to mounds. By this time next year, the environmental nonprofit Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, or CRCL, aims to finish the reef with the tribe. The project will require the group to pile about 170 tons of oyster shells along the bank, said Darrah Bach, the nonprofit’s oyster shell recycling program manager.
Most of the shells will come from the oysters slurped down in New Orleans restaurants that send the leftovers to CRCL to process and eventually return to the water.
This wasn’t the first time that CRCL worked with the tribe. In 2019, they worked together to construct a 400-foot-long oyster reef along one of their mounds. Though that site was recently named “The Mound That’s Washing Away” by tribal members, erosion has slowed since the reef’s installation, according to Bach, and the vulnerable area held up well against Hurricane Ida last August.
During the group’s last reef survey, a group of shrimpers passed by who credited the project for keeping the mound — and the oak tree on top — upright.
“Imagine how that warmed my heart,” Bach said during the recent volunteer event.
The reefs are a type of “living shoreline,” or man-made coastal barriers built with natural materials to prevent water from gnawing at the land. The artificial reefs protect the bank but also provide new habitat for marine life while growing as live oysters settle onto the shells.
“Not only are we building this really dense structure that will protect the marsh that we're building in front of, it's also going to create this thriving ecosystem habitat,” Bach said.
The tribe and CRCL hoped to see the same success with the new reef once it’s done next year.
Bach noted that the nonprofit is always looking for more oyster-serving restaurants to partner with. Currently, 18 restaurants participate. People can also recycle oyster shells at their drop-off locations.
Donald Dardar, the tribe’s second chairman, said the tribe welcomes the help, but they also know the reefs won’t be enough. They’ve also embarked on other efforts to backfill oil and gas exploration canals cut in the marsh south of the community, though that’s been held up by funding and slow permitting.
“We’re washing away, and if nothing's done, we're going to just keep washing away,” Dardar said. “This is a start. It's not much, but it's a start. If we could get more help, we could do more and hopefully try and save (the land) instead of just letting it wash away.”