Chris Macaluso grew up fishing on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, “a sportsman’s paradise” where a good day on the water could yield 100 or more redfish, bass or speckled trout.
“It’s hard to describe the electricity that goes through your body when you feel that fish thump the bait and set the hook. There’s nothing like it,” says Chris.
“It’s just exciting, to be in a boat, to see the sunrise coming up over the marsh and over the Gulf. You learn something new every time you go on the water.”
As director of the Center for Marine Fisheries for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Chris brings a sportsman’s passion to the cause of coastal restoration in the state where he was born and raised.
We talked to Chris about the benefits restoration projects provide to fish and wildlife, and how large-scale Mississippi River diversion projects can protect communities and rebuild critical habitat.
How long have you been a recreational fisherman?
I’m 43 years old. I have been fishing 40 years. I think there are pictures of me in diapers in Grand Isle. I’ve been doing this my entire life.
What do you love about fishing in Louisiana?
I have been blessed to be able to fish in a place that is unparalleled anywhere in the country. We’ve got very healthy, aggressive fish here and it makes being a fisherman easy. On a bad day, you can catch 25 fish. On a good day, you can catch fish until you can’t feel your arm anymore.
Over the years, what changes have you witnessed on the coast?
It’s just the profound loss of land. The biggest changes are in places like the Barataria Basin or the Terrebone Basin. These are places that I used to run to in a relatively small boat. They were protected by marshes. There were ridges and little islands where you could hide from the wind. Now there’s nowhere to hide in these vast expanses of open water behind the barrier islands, from Buras all the way over to Cocodrie and Dulac. There’s just no marsh left. These expanses of marsh and smaller islands that provided habitat for fish and wildlife don’t exist anymore. You’ve got to run through miles and miles of open water now to get to barrier islands. It’s getting hard and harder to do.
What has the impact been on fish?
We realized over time we were fishing in an area that’s in a decline. All the nutrients stored up in those marshes were feeding the ecosystem. You had healthy fisheries and healthy habitat, healthy edge areas where fish could hide and juvenile fish could grow up. Because a lot of those places are gone, we have seen a decline in fisheries production.
How have restoration projects to rebuild Louisiana’s barrier islands helped?
This is positive work, this whole undertaking to rebuild barrier islands and coastal habitat. It makes communities more resilient and restores critical habitat. There are communities where I grew up fishing that might not be here in 15 to 20 years without coastal restoration.
What are some success stories?
The Fourchon Beach restoration project on the Caminada Headland was a great project. I grew up fishing that beach. When I was a kid, you could drive vehicles out on that beach. You could fish it. You could walk it. You could catch some really big speckled trout. Growing up, I knew that beach was in trouble. You could see it washing out. You could see it retreating into the marsh. When they started pumping the sand up to restore the beach, it just blew me away. The quality of the material they were putting on the beach. How much they were able to rebuild. How good the dunes looked and how quickly the vegetation took root. It was amazing.
How can large-scale Mississippi River diversions help the coast and fisheries?
We need to make some significant changes in how we manage the river. We have a productive fishery in Louisiana because of the Mississippi river, not in spite of it. Reconnecting the river to the marshes is the way Mother nature wants this to happen. I am optimistic. Change is the dynamic nature of this place and is part of living here. I don’t see any way we can have a sustainable coastline if we don’t make diverse investments in coastal restoration. We have to invest in barrier island restoration and marsh creation projects. But we also have to invest in reconnecting the Mississippi River to the wetlands. We are not talking about punching holes and letting the river do what it what it wants. We can manage the system to maximize that sediment delivery, while maintaining incredibly healthy fisheries and growing our fisheries to be more diverse.
What should other anglers know about gulf restoration work?
Often times fishermen get discouraged, assuming great Louisiana Gulf fishing is a thing of the past. But when skeptics come and fish the waters, they see the value of restoration work and they experience some great days on the water. I’ve taken policymakers and anglers out on the boat and they return knowing investments in coastal resilience and habitat are paying dividends for future sportsmen and women.