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Rare access to barrier islands reveals loss of pelican habitat

Pelicans nest on Raccoon Island, a Gulf of Mexico barrier island that is a nesting ground for brown pelicans, terns, seagulls and other seabirds in Chauvin, La., May 17, 2022. Climate change is accelerating the erosion and disappearance of these barrier islands, threatening the habitat of one of last century’s most celebrated conservation success stories — the decades-long effort to bring the pelicans back from the edge of extinction. (AP Photo / Gerald Herbert)

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The all-formats team of Christina Larson, Shelby Lum and Gerald Herbert reported from the ground, the water and from the air to document the impact of climate change and land loss on the vanishing island breeding grounds of Louisiana’s brown pelicans, as well as the people and other wildlife that depend on this coastal region.

The story grew from science writer Larson‘s conversations with researchers tracking the disappearance of coastal islands in southeastern Louisiana. The AP team,including health and science video journalist Lum and New Orleans-based photographer Herbert,then spent months obtaining the necessary permits to visit the islands, which are off-limits to the public.

An hour’s boat ride to Raccoon Island,one of the last remaining refuges, allowed the trio to vividly document in text and striking visuals the effects of coastal erosion,and what remains to be lost: the brown pelicans,Louisiana’s state bird. The loss of habitat threatens the celebrated decades-long effort to bring the pelicans back from the edge of extinction. Herbert,a pilot,flew the team over the islands to understand,from the air, the vulnerabilities of the coastal ecosystem and of Louisiana’s saltwater marshes.

The vanishing islands also impact people living in the region. With two members of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe,the AP team traveled by small boat down the bayous in their community in southern Louisiana to understand how losing so much losing land in just a generation had transformed their way of life and made their future uncertain. The disappearance of barrier islands removes important “speed bumps,” which in a healthy ecosystem would mute the intensity of storms rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico before they hit mainland residential areas.

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