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Grand Isle Renaissance 

From coastal work to a state-of-the-art research facility, there's a lot more going on in Grand Isle these days than just fishing (and there's good news on that front, too).

When you live with the hustle and bustle of metropolitan New Orleans, it's easy to forget your neighbors to the south are washing away into the Gulf of Mexico. Many locals, however, know that coastal restoration is a problem for those who live next to salt water. It thus came as welcome news last week that the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group, secured more than $4 million for a shoreline restoration project in Grand Isle. The goal is to build approximately 4 miles of oyster reef stretching from the Biloxi Marsh along Louisiana's northeastern shoreline to south Louisiana's favorite inhabitable island.

  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is supporting the grant to bolster recreational and commercial fisheries and to help reduce flooding. The NOAA estimates that this stimulus-funded project will create dozens of jobs.

  Louisiana currently experiences the highest rate of coastal land loss in the country, in large part due to the erosive force of wave action on fragile coastlines. Shell reefs, which were once ubiquitous across the Louisiana coast and helped protect shorelines, have declined in abundance and health. Dr. Keith Ouchley, state director of the Nature Conservancy, says the project seeks to reverse that trend in two key places and refurbish ecological capital in these highly productive systems. "These projects will also provide an important opportunity to test technology that can be used across the Gulf and will provide employment opportunities for Louisiana businesses and residents," he adds.

  While talk of an eroding coastline might make Grand Isle sound like a remote outpost, the tiny island with a rich history also hosts technology that's the envy of other Gulf facilities. Last week, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries officially opened its Fisheries Research Lab on the barrier island. The 35,000-square-foot lab is located on seven acres that front Caminada Bay on the northern shore of Grand Isle. It can house and rehabilitate manatees, dolphins and sea turtles, which offers new working relationships with groups such as the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and Sea Turtle Rescue Program.

  The new facility is expected to become an important hub, serving as a driver in the statewide fisheries management process. The state's Sport Fish Restoration Program and the Artificial Reef Program will also be based at the lab, which will likewise house resource sampling and research work for the state wildlife biologists. "This project is one of my proudest accomplishments in my tenure at [the Department of] Wildlife and Fisheries," Secretary Robert Barham says. "This is one of the finest research facilities in the United States and will help Louisiana maintain its dominance and prestige as one of the greatest seafood producers in the world."

  In all, the lab represents a $23 million investment by the state, so it isn't surprising that extreme measures were taken to ensure the lab was built with hurricane and flood protection in mind. It was built six feet above sea level with dredge material, and its finished floors are 18 feet above sea level. It can resist 150 mph winds and was constructed to "wash out" during a high flood event.

  If all of that wasn't enough news last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal and local officials also opened public road access to Elmer's Island after it was closed for nearly a decade. Last November, Jindal announced the state was opening 250 acres of the island for public use after extensive title research found this portion of the Grand Isle area was owned by the state. Nighttime activities are prohibited on Elmer's Island, but all you need is a hunting or fishing license to enjoy this south Louisiana jewel.

  And this time of year is among the best to catch fish.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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