Researchers are breeding new varieties of smooth cordgrass that could one day restore Louisiana marshes threatened by the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Up river from where oil is washing ashore in Plaquemines Parish in the southeast tip of Louisiana, LSU AgCenter research associates are planting ponds with smooth cordgrass.

The grass is the predominant plant species in Louisiana’s intertidal marshes.

“Not just theoretically, but literally, in the most saline, open-water area, smooth cordgrass is the plant that is holding all that wetland together,” said LSU AgCenter coastal wetland plant specialist Mike Materne.

So far, the researchers have planted 600 individual plants of smooth cordgrass in ponds at the LSU AgCenter Coastal Area Research Station at Port Sulpher, La.

“We’re expecting to release six new varieties of smooth cordgrass to wetland plant growers, so these plants will one day help restore deteriorating marshes, areas that are now threatened by oil,” Materne said.

This grass reproduces vegetatively as opposed to by seeds. It creates a strong root system and can stand up to high concentrations of salt and to the pounding of the tide.

Materne said it is unclear how the oil spill will affect the smooth cordgrass plant. He says it can withstand oil that is suspended in the water, but worse conditions may kill it.

“If the oil lingers in heavy concentration for any length of time and gets into the soil, then damages that below-ground portion of the plant, there is a pretty good chance that the plant will die altogether,” the researcher said.

After the spill’s effects have been assessed, Materne said researchers with the LSU AgCenter’s wetland plant program will collect plants affected by and surviving the oil spill.

“We’ll bring them back to our program, and over the next several years we’ll be testing, and as quickly as we can, we’ll release a suite of plants across several species that we are confident are somewhat petroleum-resistant.”

Louisiana’s wetlands also are home to many species of wildlife and seafood. Residents of this coastal parish rely on the fish, shrimp and oysters the marshes support. Storms have battered the fishing community in recent years, and this oil spill could be just as devastating.

“The real catastrophe is in the socio-economic context,” said Rusty Gaude, an LSU AgCenter fisheries agent for Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Orleans parishes. “For the people affected, this is as bad as, if not worse than, Hurricane Katrina.”

The spill and the subsequent closing of fishing areas have put fishers out of work. Gaude said they are filled with anxiety and uncertainty about when their next paycheck will come, and many were still recovering from hurricanes.

“There will be a lot of people that this will be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.

Gaude said that seafood harvested from open fishing areas is safe to consume, and that closures are strictly enforced.

“The seafood that is coming into the market chain from Louisiana is just as safe as it was before,” Gaude said. “We still have our signature quality on all seafood coming in.”

e-mail: tblanchard@agcenter.lsu.edu