Talk NERRdy to Me: Kelly Boudreaux

Oct 26, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s interstate investigator Nik Charov spoke with Kelly Boudreaux, one of the driving forces behind the new Atchafalaya Reserve designation and friends group genesis. They talked about Gulf Coast industry, preparing for the largest Reserve in the system, and shrimp boiled, broiled, baked, sauteed, kabobbed …

Nik: Kelly Boudreaux from the Great State of Louisiana and the proto-Reserve of Atchafalaya Basin, welcome to Talk NERRdy!

Kelly: Thank you. It’s an honor. … uh, you might hear my husband cutting the grass in the background, because we’re getting ready for the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival. 

Nik: … the what now? Oh, I have so many questions! Those are typically not two great tastes that go great together.

Kelly: The Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival in Morgan City is actually the oldest state festival in Louisiana. It started in 1936 to celebrate the fisherman. All the shrimp boats got a blessing from a local Catholic priest. In the 1960s, the oil industry came into our area and really became a prominent part of our economy. That’s when they added the oil rig to the logo and it became the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival. It’s always Labor Day Weekend. There’s a queen and a king, they have crowns … I may have been a princess at one time …

Nik: We demand pictures.

Kelly: There’s lots of live music, really great yummy-bad-for-you food, rides for the kids, and they have a parade on Sunday. Then they still bless the fleet, so the queen goes on one shrimp vessel and the king on another and they toast each other. It’s so much fun.

Nik: Not to not to throw shade onto this, but how does one square the two? Let’s say it’s 2010, after, hypothetically, a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and NOAA closes the shrimpery … Is there any cognitive dissonance at the Festival?

Kelly: Yeah, they still held it. Oil is such a big part of the economy, shrimp such a big part of our history. But that’s why this Reserve coming into our area is also important. It produces another spoke for our economy and also helps people understand our world. 

Nik: C’mon, really, why would anyone want a Reserve in their community?

Kelly: Visitors coming for ecotourism would be a big thing. The Atchafalaya is already a very well-studied area, but there’s so much we can all learn from it. It’s actually creating land right now, new ecosystems. A delta-based Reserve able to study that and see how we can sustain and continue to live in this area is a Big Deal!

Nik: OK!

Kelly: We’re very proud of where we live, and with lots of hunting, fishing, recreational and commercial activity, we want to be able to sustain all that. I want my kids to be able to do it. The Reserve will help sustain that. 

My biggest thing is the education piece. That’s been my driver for why our community should have it here. I have three little boys: 10, 8, and 4. I grew up in this area; the Atchafalaya is two blocks from my house. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what it is, what the ecosystem has. For our kids to understand that at an early age and appreciate it and respect it, and learn about it and then also learn different opportunities they may have—that’s my driving force.

Kelly with her three sons: Cooper, Henry and Maxwill.

Nik: You’re one of the on-the-ground, in-community folks really raising support for the designation. You say you grew up in the area? Is “Boudreaux” a common Cajun name, wink wink?

Kelly: Boudreaux is the equivalent of Smith in Louisiana! So many Boudreauxs. Actually, Boudreaux is my married name. My family name is Lind. My grandfather came down here in the 50s because of the oil industry. My family actually owns a 60-year-old offshore food distribution business; we distribute food to the oil rigs via truck, helicopter, boat. Again, our whole town, really, is built around the oil industry: not just drilling for oil, but the parts, the pieces, the food, everything. 

Nik: In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, one of the big things that’s coming for us is offshore wind, and developing these deepwater ports and staging areas to get these massive construction projects going off-shore … Well, I think Louisiana has a lot to teach us. So the new Reserve is going to be bringing industry knowledge and connections and a model of how communities coexist with massive, massive industry. You’re all about community, Kelly. Are you heading up the friends group? What’s your role in all this?

Kelly: I’m with the organization St. Mary Excel, which advocates for economic and cultural opportunities here in St. Mary Parish. 

Nik: Sidebar for those not of Colonial French Government Descent—is a “parish” a town, a city, or a county unit? 

Kelly: We call a county a “parish” down here. We like to be different. 

Nik: Got it. Continuez, s’il vous plaît.

Kelly: Anyway, once we saw that we were getting nominated as a site for a Reserve, we jumped on it. To educate the community about what this could mean to us, the benefits … My partner in crime, Margaret Theriot, and I spearheaded all kinds of community relations events. We went to city councils, parish councils, school boards; we went to the schools to talk to the kids; we went to the docks and talked to the fishermen; we went everywhere to just tell people about what this can do and get their support. 

We have three big cities that are around us; there are 450,000 students within 75 miles—not just Morgan City, but Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans can get here. There are kids that have never experienced these waterways. Even in our area, maybe 10% of the population actually gets to experience Atchafalaya. It’s gonna give a lot of opportunities of all different kinds. 

Plus, we’ve got a lot to share about being resilient, being able to deal with anything that comes our way: fires, hurricanes, oil and gas extraction, then coming back stronger. I think that’s important for us to bring to the Reserve System. We’re gonna learn a lot and people are gonna learn a lot from Louisiana.

Kelly presenting during the site selection process.

Kelly and Margaret Theriot.

Nik: Your state’s been the missing tooth in the smile around the coasts for four decades now. So how has the designation process been going? Have you encountered any kind of friction or pushback yet, or questions? 

Kelly: Of course! I embrace the questions; we want the questions. Working with Kristin Ransom—she’s awesome.

Nik: A known dilettante and pirate. You’re in good hands.

Kelly: She says that she wants to hear the concerns. We frequently hear “it’s gonna bring more regulations.” No, it’s not. But the fishing industry, they’re so protective and proud of what they have. We were at a town hall meeting and a fisherman got up and spoke out, with his son next to him, and he had his questions and at the end, he was, like, I am for this because I want to hand what I have to my kids. And I see that this is going to help us continue to do that.

Nik: What convinced him? What did he hear from you all?

Kelly: They were afraid of federal and state involvement, that there would be rules and regulations, that they can’t do what they’re doing, when actually this Reserve is going to enhance what we have already. We talked about the monitoring systems that will support them, and that the Reserve is going to study and keep the environment that we live in already. The fisherman had mentioned that he’s not catching as much fish; there is potential for Reserve studies to help our waterways and help them run a more efficient industry. 

Nik: I saw “Forrest Gump, “ so I know ALL ABOUT shrimping, but what else is being fished?

Kelly: Crawfish is a huge industry. We haul 110 million pounds annually.

Nik: What!? We do 100 million pounds of lobster in Maine, and lobsters are four times the size!

Kelly: That’s just in our area. It’s about $120 million of economic impact. There’s seafood shops around here that sell out of crawfish on Friday and Saturday nights during Lent—it’s crazy. I lived in Colorado for a while; we used to get them shipped up. Louisianans like to eat!

Nik: True dat. Where is the Reserve right now in the process?

Kelly: Everywhere I go, I hear “so when is this happening? When is this happening?” They’re writing the management plan and the Environmental Impact Statement drafts; we’re waiting for those to come out any day now so that we can give our feedback.

In the meantime, we’re starting up the Friends group so that we are ready to represent. We’ve gotten such a head start thanks to a lot of counsel from all the people in the Reserve network. You all gave us so many useful things, help, advice, my gosh, like everything. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about: being part of this massive community. I met with the lawyer to start the 501(c)3 this week; I’m meeting with a website designer tomorrow. We have a meeting set up with the management organization that will be managing the Reserve so that we can start on the same pages. 

Nik: What do you mean a “management organization”?

Kelly: That’ll be LUMCOM, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. Their mission is to increase awareness of coastal and ocean issues important to Louisiana. They’re a conduit for building networks and marine research and education connections within all the Louisiana universities’ research communities, providing opportunities for teams to explore, combine expertise, and build career-long collaborations.

Nik: It seems like a perfect fit to run a Reserve. Will they be employing the research coordinator and the manager and the EC and everything?

Kelly: As far as I understand, yes, but they’re just forming the draft management plan so we haven’t formally seen any of what it’s gonna look like. I hope this all happens by the end of December, or beginning of January. That’s what they say, but as we know, this takes longer than we expect.

Nik: It’s happening faster than it ever used to. I mean, a new RESERVE used to take five to ten years. I know Louisiana has been ticking along, had stops and starts, but this feels very fast now. Is there a physical building ready to go?

Kelly: We have some suggestions for that! There’s a tourism center here in Morgan City that would be a great fit.

Nik: So I’ve read John McPhee’s classic essay; he makes the Atchafalaya sound like it’s the Army Corps of Engineers’ greatest feat. Do y’all consider it a natural area, or has it been so directed, ditched, and canaled that it’s more like a million acres of locks and levies? 

Kelly: They’ve cut it down to 876,000 acres at this point.

Nik: That’s still the biggest Reserve in the system, by three times. (Sorry, Alaska!) You must have a lot of habitats?

Kelly: Waterways, inlets, cypress. Lots of cypress.

Nik: Alligators, lots of alligators?

Kelly: Umm, just a few. Lots of bird species. It’s a biodiversity hotspot. And we’re getting larger—did I mention that the Atchafalaya is actually building land? Thirty percent of the Mississippi is flowing into the Atchafalaya, building the delta.

Nik: You’re catching sediment from Ohio, Illinois, and piling it up. You’ll have bits of Missouri and Minnesota there as well. A real gumbo! Maybe you need to expand the name, with the land … by the way, what does “Atchafalaya” mean, and how does one correctly pronounce it?

Kelly: At-CHA-fah-LIE-ah. Accent the second and fourth syllables. Sounds like a sneeze – aCHOO! I think it means “long river” in a local Native American language.

Nik: You know, I think more than half of the Reserve names are Native American words for river or estuary. For example, “Connecticut” means “long tidal river” in Mashantucket-Pequot. So their name is like “Estuary National Estuarine Research Reserve.” Ahem … Well, anywho, picking a name and starting up is the hard part. Running a Reserve is a piece of cake.

Kelly: Uh-huh. Right. I’d say: starting out is a patience game, and keeping people involved is a challenge. But the process is a reminder that a small group of people CAN make a difference, even if they don’t know all the science behind everything. Daily, I’m learning something new. Communities can come together and be for something that’s gonna make a difference. Hopefully for the designation we’ll have a big kickoff party.

Nik: Coming next Labor Day—the Shrimp & Petroleum & Reserve Festival!

Kelly in front of the Atchafalaya River.

From left to right: Tammie Moore, Dr. Brian Roberts, Dr. Kim Hunter-Reed, Monica Mancuso, Catherine Holcomb, Kelly Boudreaux, and Margaret Theriot.

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ReservesTalk NERRdy to Me: Kelly Boudreaux