The Mysterious Disappearance of Louisiana’s Cat Island

Introduction to Cat Island

Cat Island is an island located in the Barataria Bay of the Gulf of Mexico, about 15 miles southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana (Wikipedia). The crescent-shaped island is approximately 5 miles long and 1 mile wide at its widest point. Historically, Cat Island was an important habitat for wildlife and rookeries, or colonies of nesting birds. It provided a buffer against storm surge and erosion for interior wetlands. However, the island has experienced significant land loss over the past few decades due to a combination of natural and human factors.

Cat Island’s unique geography as a barrier island protecting interior wetlands gave it ecological significance in the Mississippi River delta system. For centuries, nutrients and sediments from the Mississippi River sustained the island and allowed it to rebuild after storms. The island was home to thousands of brown pelicans, egrets, spoonbills, and other water birds that nested in its shrubs and mangroves. In the early 1900s, fur traders voyaged to Cat Island to trap the muskrats, raccoons, otters and mink that flourished there.

Causes of Erosion

There are several factors that have caused the severe erosion of Cat Island. Rising sea levels due to climate change have inundated the island and eroded the shoreline. According to “Five Years After the BP Oil Disaster: A Barrier Island for Nesting Birds Devoid of Life”, the BP oil spill in 2010 dramatically accelerated the erosion of the island.

Additionally, the lack of new sediment arriving at Cat Island has contributed to its shrinking size. Normally, sediment from the Mississippi River would replenish the island, but river levees prevent this. According to “Photos Show Louisiana Coast 10 Years After BP Oil Spill”, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of land loss due to subsidence and sea level rise.

Finally, powerful storms like hurricanes batter the island, causing severe damage. The cumulative effect of these factors – rising seas, lack of new sediment, and repeated storm impacts – has rapidly eroded Cat Island over time.

Effects of Erosion

The erosion of Cat Island has had devastating effects on the land and wildlife habitats in the area. According to an article on Desmog, “The BP spill “totally accelerated” the erosion of Cat Island,” Linda Hooper Bui, an entomologist at Louisiana State University, told DeSmogBlog.

Cat Island has experienced a massive loss of land in a short period of time. The island has shrunk from around 1,500 acres in 2010 to just 350 acres today, representing over a 75% loss of land area. This dramatic erosion has severely damaged vital bird and wildlife habitats that existed on the island.

With so much land area lost, the island is also now extremely vulnerable to damage from tropical storms and hurricanes. The remaining land could be wiped out entirely by a direct hit from a major storm. The erosion of Cat Island highlights the fragility of many barrier islands in Louisiana. Rising sea levels and reduced wetland buffers continue to threaten their future.

Attempts to Save the Island

There have been several efforts to save Cat Island from further erosion and restore the island’s wetlands. The state of Louisiana and conservation groups such as the National Wildlife Federation have led restoration projects and advocated for protection.

Some key projects have included:

  • Construction of rock breakwaters and terraced containment dikes by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources in 1999 to help shelter the island from wave action.
  • Planting of native vegetation like black mangroves on parts of the island by conservation groups to stabilize the soil.
  • A proposed project by the National Wildlife Federation in 2014 to use funds from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill payments to rebuild 100 acres of wetlands on Cat Island.

However, saving Cat Island has proven challenging. Due to continued erosion, any restored acreage is often quickly lost again. Lack of funding has also hampered larger-scale restoration plans. Conservation groups have had to advocate for legislation ensuring spill penalty funds are used for coastal restoration as originally intended. Overall, it remains an ongoing battle to preserve Cat Island against rapid coastal land loss.

Future Outlook

The future outlook for Cat Island remains dire. Due to continued erosion from the Mississippi River, experts predict that the island will likely continue to lose land mass in the coming years and decades.[1] Some projections estimate the island could fully disappear within the next 50-100 years if erosion continues at the current pace.[2]

This continued erosion threatens to completely wipe out the habitat that exists on Cat Island today. The island is home to a variety of wildlife, including migratory birds, deer, raccoons, squirrels, otters, and more. As the island shrinks, it can support less wildlife. Several bird species have already abandoned nesting grounds on Cat Island due to habitat loss.[3]

Conservation groups are continuing to work to protect and restore parts of Cat Island. However, major intervention and engineering projects would likely be required to fully stop the island’s erosion. If no action is taken, the total loss of Cat Island could mean the disappearance of critical nesting and nursing grounds for birds and other wildlife species along the Mississippi River.



Wider Impact

Cat Island represents the wider land loss crisis occurring in Louisiana. Over the past 80 years, Louisiana has lost over 2,000 square miles of coastal wetlands. This land loss threatens wildlife habitats and leaves coastal communities increasingly vulnerable to flooding from storms and sea level rise.

As one of the larger barrier islands off the coast of Louisiana, Cat Island’s disappearance serves as a warning for the fate of other islands. Barrier islands act as a first line of defense against storm surge, reducing wave energy and flooding impacts on the mainland. With the degradation of islands like Cat Island, nearby coastal areas are now more exposed to storms and flooding.

The loss of Cat Island also impacts birds and wildlife that depend on the island’s habitats. Prior to its degradation, Cat Island provided nesting and feeding grounds for brown pelicans, least terns, mottled ducks and other species. As barrier islands like Cat Island vanish, there are fewer places for these birds to nest and feed.

Overall, the dramatic erosion observed at Cat Island represents the larger crisis facing Louisiana’s coastal wetlands and barrier islands. The changes observed here foreshadow what could occur across the region if coastal land loss continues unabated. Strong action will be required to preserve Louisiana’s remaining wetlands and islands into the future.

Possible Solutions

There are several possible solutions that could help save what remains of Cat Island and restore the land that has been lost. Some of the most promising options include:

Improved restoration efforts could help rebuild marshlands and wetlands that act as natural barriers against erosion. Strategic dredging and pipeline sediment delivery could be used to rebuild land mass. And planting vegetation would help anchor soils and reduce wave impacts.1

Engineered barriers and structures could also help diffuse wave energy and trap sediment. Rock breakwaters, oyster reefs, and living shorelines made of plants and natural materials may be constructed to protect the island’s shoreline and encourage accretion.2

Relocating vulnerable infrastructure away from the island’s edges could reduce human impacts on erosion and allow natural land-building processes to occur. Removing channels, pipelines, access roads and other structures would eliminate artificial causes of land loss.3


The primary factors contributing to erosion on Cat Island are sea level rise and human activity, especially industrial dredging in surrounding waters. While erosion is a natural process, the rate of erosion on Cat Island has accelerated in recent decades due to climate change. According to [SOURCE1], sea level in the Gulf of Mexico has risen over 8 inches since 1950, eroding shorelines and barrier islands like Cat Island at an alarming pace. Dredging activity by nearby ports has also contributed significantly to Cat Island’s rapid land loss by interrupting the natural flow of sediment that would normally replenish the island.

While climate change is a global phenomenon, the accountable parties for the industrial dredging are more localized. The Port of Gulfport and other regional ports have done significant dredging over the years to maintain shipping channels, yet often fail to carry out mitigation projects to offset the resulting erosion. According to [SOURCE2], an estimated 17 million cubic yards of sand were removed from nearshore waters around Cat Island between 1887-1963. Local environmental groups argue that the Port of Gulfport and Army Corps of Engineers should take more responsibility for the unintended consequences of dredging by funding restoration projects like beach re-nourishment.

Ultimately, saving Cat Island will require governmental action at multiple levels. While climate change is a global problem requiring national and international initiatives, regional coordination between state regulators and port authorities is also essential to balance commercial interests with environmental impacts. Without a comprehensive strategy accounting for both climate factors and human activity, iconic natural habitats like Cat Island remain at risk.

What This Means

The demise of Cat Island highlights the urgency of coastal preservation and the need for climate action. Natural coastal barriers like Cat Island provide enormous value in buffering storms and floods, protecting communities, ecosystems and infrastructure (Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge). As rising seas, stronger storms, and increased erosion driven by climate change threaten these critical protections, preserving and restoring natural buffers must become a top priority.

The loss of over 90% of Cat Island in just a few decades underscores the speed at which coastal land can disappear if left unprotected. This rapid erosion rate sounds alarms for many other coastal regions facing similar threats. There is no time to delay taking action before the window to save these invaluable natural defenses closes.

Protecting coastal wetlands and barrier islands requires comprehensive climate strategies, including reducing carbon emissions, managing sediment flows, and allowing space for natural landward migration as seas rise. With coordinated efforts across sectors, we can stem the rapid loss of irreplaceable coastal lands and ensure these ecosystems continue to safeguard human and ecological communities.


Cat Island was once a thriving community in the Barataria Basin of coastal Louisiana. Over the past few decades, erosion and sea level rise have eaten away at the island, destroying homes and forcing residents to flee. Today, Cat Island is a shell of its former self, with less than 10 percent of the land remaining.

The loss of Cat Island is emblematic of the much larger crisis occurring across Louisiana’s coast. Due to a combination of natural and man-made factors, Louisiana is losing land at an alarming rate. This land loss threatens communities, wildlife habitats, infrastructure, and the state’s economy and culture.

More must be done to address coastal erosion in Louisiana before it is too late. Projects are underway to rebuild the coast through sediment diversion and barrier island restoration. But a comprehensive, well-funded coastal master plan is needed along with commitment from the state and federal government. The fate of Cat Island and others like it hangs in the balance.

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