The Giant Rodents Eating Louisiana’s Coast
A recent documentary shows nutria devouring Louisiana’s wetlands — but the problems facing the coast are even bigger.
IN 2010, AN explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig made an oil-soaked pelican the prevailing symbol of the precarious relationship between industry and the environment on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. But long before the rig pumped 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico — and still today — the people of southern Louisiana have had another such symbol: Large, invasive, semi-aquatic rodents called nutria, which have been chewing up the marshes for decades.
A recent documentary, “Rodents of Unusual Size,” which premiered on PBS earlier this year and is now available on iTunes, explores the integration of nutria into Louisiana’s Gulf Coast through a host of characters. The documentary features nutria hunters, trappers, enthusiasts, and pelt-dealers. One nutria control specialist named Michael and his hunting dog George W. Bush track nutria on a golf course. Local New Orleans celebrities Kermit Ruffins, a musician, and Susan Spicer, a chef, each demonstrate how to cook their own version of the rodent. And women from a company called Righteous Fur prepare for a fashion show to demonstrate the sexiness of swamp rat.
The film’s primary protagonist, however, is a fisherman and trapper named Thomas Gonzalez, who participates in the state’s Coastwide Nutria Control Program, which has placed a $5 bounty on the rodent. Gonzalez lives on a shrinking patch of marsh in the community of Delacroix Island, 30 miles southeast of New Orleans.
By doing battle with the nutria, there is the sense that Gonzalez is fighting to maintain his way of life. But the precariousness of his situation also demonstrates the larger, unwieldy political, industrial, and environmental forces that the citizens of the region have been at the mercy of for years — forces that the new documentary touches on, but doesn’t explore in depth.
The excesses of the fur trade are part of a larger cycle, where coastal commercialization has come at an environmental cost. Even BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for all its damage, doesn’t capture the extent of the subtler daily degradation oil and gas companies have had on Louisiana’s wetlands. For decades, lax regulations from Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources allowed the energy industry to dredge canals, drill wells, and extract oil. Between this industrialization and the effects of climate change, southern Louisiana’s situation is dire. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, between 1985 and 2010, the state’s coast lost, on average, around a football field of wetlands every hour.
Mitigating the damage will take more than a determined band of rodent bounty hunters — it will require a concerted effort by the state, and eventually the nation at large, to commit to restoring and protecting wetlands, rather than treating them as collateral damage.
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