Estuaries are the lifeblood of the Gulf of Mexico. Places like the Mississippi Sound, where fresh water from several major rivers mixes with the saltier waters of the Gulf, are critical nursery grounds for most of the fish and shellfish that Mississippians love to catch and eat — everything from shrimp to redfish.
The result? The Mississippi Coast delivers a serious economic punch. Recreational fishing along our coast generates nearly $600 million annually for the state while supporting more than 5,000 jobs, and tourists spend almost $2 billion each year to experience Mississippi’s wildlife and natural beauty. The Mississippi Sound is a huge part of this economic engine, providing some of the best recreational fishing and hunting areas in the country.
But the health of the Sound is not what it once was. An average of 200 acres of shoreline and marsh are lost to erosion every year, jeopardizing the intricate salt-to-fresh water balance of this estuary. Development has altered our waterways and shorelines and intensified water quality problems. Even Mississippi’s once-plentiful oyster reefs are at an all-time low.
But just in time for National Estuaries Week (Sept. 17-24), we have reason to be hopeful. A federal-state body known as the RESTORE Council recently released an important update to its comprehensive plan for some of the penalty dollars resulting from the tragic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.
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This draft update encourages exactly the kind of creative, long-term thinking needed to restore the health of the Mississippi Sound while helping our communities become more resilient in the face of urban growth and extreme weather. Most importantly, the latest update expresses a commitment to funding the kinds of projects that will make the greatest difference for the health of the Gulf as a whole.
This focus should also make it easier to get funding for continued restoration and protection for places like the Pascagoula River. Not only does this river system supply a large portion of freshwater to the Mississippi Sound, it is one of the last unimpeded major river systems in the lower 48 states. Efforts like restoring wetland habitat, removing invasive species, replanting native marsh vegetation and reconnecting water flows will support productive fisheries and promote healthy water quality for the Sound.
The money that this plan will control comes as a result of the 2012 RESTORE Act, a bill that will ultimately send about $5.2 billion from the oil disaster’s Clean Water Act penalties back to the Gulf. This plan will directly control or at least influence nearly two-thirds of that amount — a phenomenal sum.
When talking about complicated, multifaceted efforts, people often say, “The devil’s in the details.” The Council — including Mississippi’s restoration leaders who sit on it — did a good job ensuring the draft update gets many of these small details right, such as committing to improve proposal submission guidelines and encouraging a more robust science-based review of submitted projects.
As good as this update is, it can always be stronger. Mississippians have until Oct. 7 to comment on the plan by visiting www.restorethegulf.gov. You can also attend a public meeting on Sept. 26 at University of Southern Mississippi’s Fleming Education Center Auditorium in Long Beach to learn more about the plan and make comments (open house at 5 p.m.; meeting starts at 6 p.m.).
The future health of the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico are at stake. It’s up to all of us to make sure this once-in-a-lifetime chance to restore these treasures is used wisely for the benefit of all who enjoy, live, or earn a living on the coast, and for future generations.
Brad Young: 601-605-1790, BYoung@mswf.org