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Chandeleur Island Restoration Project

In the Gulf of Mexico at the easternmost tip of Louisiana, sits the historic Chandeleur Islands, a thin chain of barrier islands formed over 2,000 years ago. The Islands were given their name by French explorer Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville who came upon them while searching for the mouth of the Mississippi River along the Gulf Coast. His party landed on the Islands on February 1, 1700, the eve of the Christian feast day known as Fête de la Chandeleur, inspiring his naming choice.

The Chandeleur and Breton Islands make up the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, the second-oldest National Wildlife Refuge in the country, established on October 4, 1904, through an executive order by President Theodore Roosevelt. An avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt saw the need to protect the islands as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. During his presidency, Roosevelt established the first 55 federal bird reservations and game preserves across the United States, protecting habitats for countless species.

After his time in office, Roosevelt traveled to the Breton National Wildlife Refuge in June 1915, marking his only visit to a refuge he had established. While visiting the Refuge, Roosevelt wrote: “I was very glad to have seen this bird refuge. With care and protection the birds will increase and grow tamer and tamer, until it will be possible for anyone to make trips among these reserves and refuges, and to see as much as we saw, at even closer quarters. No sight more beautiful and more interesting could be imagined.”

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President Theodore Roosevelt Visits the Breton National Wildlife Refuge in June 1915.

Since Roosevelt’s visit, the barrier island chain has changed drastically. It is estimated that the Wildlife Refuge spanned 11,000 acres in the late 1800s. Today, the refuge covers less than 1,000 acres.

The islands have lost nearly 90% of their landmass over the past 200 years due to intense weather events, including Hurricanes Georges (1998) and Katrina (2005). The islands were also heavily oiled during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, impacting many birds, plants, seagrasses, and aquatic species that inhabited them.

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Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Impacts on Chandeleur Islands. (Photos Courtesy of USFWS)

What’s At Stake

The islands are home to world-renowned recreational fishing and bird watching and serve as an important storm surge barrier and first line of defense for some of southeast Louisiana’s most densely populated areas. The island chain also plays an important role for various species, providing nesting grounds in the spring and winter foraging habitat for migratory wildlife. Seven federally designated Species of Global Importance, including the Piping Plover, Red Knot, Reddish Egret, Snowy Plover, Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, and Gulf Sturgeon, can be found on the islands.

Species of Greatest Conservation Need Chandeleur Islands
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Despite the belief that the Chandeleur Islands were unsuitable for nesting sea turtles, CPRA and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) have documented 108 sea turtle crawls over two nesting seasons in 2022 and 2023. This discovery marked the first time in over 75 years that Kemp’s ridley turtle hatchlings, the most endangered sea turtle in the world, had been observed on the islands. Further observations in 2023 revealed 54 sea turtle crawls, 12 confirmed nests with eggs, and at least two successful nests.

The islands are now documented as having the second-highest crawl density beach in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Read more.

Scientists captured video of Kemps ridley hatchlings moving from nests on the Chandeleur Islands into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Chandeleur Islands are home to five varieties of seagrasses, collectively spanning approximately 5,200 acres. This is the largest, most botanically diverse assemblage of seagrasses in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Many marine species, including mammals, benefit from the abundant and diverse collection of seagrasses. Over the course of a year, CPRA spotted 255 dolphins along the islands. Dolphin observations are 2.5 times more likely near the Chandeleur Islands than in the marshes of St. Bernard or the Chandeleur Sound, highlighting dolphins’ attraction to the habitat provided by the island chain. The dolphins found along the islands also benefit the breeding stocks of dolphins from Mississippi and Louisiana, bolstering their population numbers.

Dolphins observed in the sea grass meadows of North Chandeleur Island.

Various species of fish, including Red, Gray, and Lane snappers, utilize the waters surrounding the islands as nursery grounds. The area is the only nursery ground for lemon sharks in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Michael Dance, an Assistant Professor with the Louisiana State University College of the Coast and Environment, observed that the islands also support Gulf sturgeon from the Pearl River, Pascagoula, and Mobile River breeding stocks.

World-renowned ornithologists have visited the Chandeleur Islands to conduct surveys on the more than 200,000 birds, including piping plovers, red knots, redhead ducks, and other birds, that inhabit the islands in a typical year. The islands play host to secretive marsh birds, passerines, pelagic birds, colonial nesting birds, waterfowl, wintering migratory birds, solitary nesting birds, and more from across the globe. Banded birds that visit the Chandeleur Islands have been observed in at least 33 other countries around the world, which is why the National Audubon Society has deemed them a “Globally Significant” Bird Area.

Doppler Radar picked up Roost Rings over the Chandeleur Islands when approximately 300,000 birds took flight at Sunrise. (Video Courtesy of Steve Caparotta, WAFB)

The islands are notably the only nesting ground in the world for the Chandeleur Gull, which once numbered around 100 but have decreased to only 24 adults and 4 chicks as of 2023. Without a concerted restoration plan, the nesting ground of the Chandeleur Gulls will continue to disappear, and the species could be lost.

An extremely rare observance of a Chandeleur Gull egg hatching, or “pipping,” was recently captured by scientists on South Chandeleur Island. (Video courtesy of USFWS)

Restoration Plan

CPRA is currently in the engineering and design phase of the Chandeleur Island Restoration Project, which will restore 13 miles of the barrier island chain. Once complete, the restoration will increase the overall, long-term resiliency and sustainability of these landmasses.

Included in the 2023 Coastal Master Plan and the Louisiana Wildlife Action Plan, the Chandeleur Islands Restoration Project will provide significant protection to several coastal communities through a whole ecosystem restoration approach intended to preserve, rebuild, and improve barrier island and marsh habitat with a special focus on birds, sea turtles, and sea grasses.

Chandeleur Island Fact Sheets