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Leadership Jackson County class gets lessons on nature

Do you know how many Mississippi sandhill cranes are at the refuge in Gautier? Have you seen a map of the Pascagoula River Blueway? Do you need help identifying birds you see in your backyard?

Experts from local environmental agencies were on hand to answer those questions when my Leadership Jackson County class met last week at USM Gulf Coast Research Laboratory.

The day was spent at the new administration building on the Cedar Point campus of the GCRL, located near Gulf Islands National Seashore Davis Bayou Area in Ocean Springs. The facility is a beautiful building with an inviting foyer, a conference room, several classrooms and offices.

The $25 million Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center is the site of a hatchery that works to increase wild stock of sea trout, red snapper and striped bass. Fish spawn in tanks and the offspring are carefully grown to fingerling size before being tagged and released. The Center releases about 250,000 sea trout alone each year.

The number of sandhill cranes at the refuge is 107 birds, up from the 30 to 35 in the area in the 1960s. The Mississippi sandhill crane was among the first species listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1973, resulting in the establishment of the refuge in 1975. It is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which had staff on hand to explain the process of monitoring the cranes, and maintaining the refuge.

The Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point can help with ID’ing backyard birds. Dr. Mark LaSalle, director of the Center, talked enthusiastically about the mission of the group, and its building project about to begin along the downtown riverfront. The group has a handout available with pictures of common birds of Mississippi.

LaSalle also gave an overview of how important ecotourism is to the region, and how by working together the agencies can get a bigger slice of a pretty lucrative pie. A birding trail survey conducted at Dauphin Island in Alabama, for example, shows the average income of a birder at $87,800 annually. Those birders spend an average of $287 on hotel/motel expenses. The survey also showed that 64 percent of the birders will pay an item related to their hobby while visiting an area, and 73 percent of them will buy local art.

You want to get out on the water, but don’t own a boat. No problem. LaSalle talked about McCoy’s River & Marsh Tours, Eco-Tours of South Mississippi and South Coast Paddling, as well as Everything Kayak and pointed out that outfitters like these are growing industries.

You like to watch wildlife? Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve staff talked about what the reserve offers at its location on Bayou Heron Road in Moss Point. Visitors can learn about estuaries and the habitats found there, can go birding, hiking, biking or paddling at the Reserve. The Reserve conducts water monitoring programs, research opportunities, and habitat studies and management.

The Land Trust for the Coastal Mississippi Plain gives landowners the opportunity to leave a legacy with several options for donating land that is considered of ecological, scenic or cultural significance.

The approximately 30 members of the Leadership Jackson County class heard about other environmental programs along the Coast as well.

Gulf Coast Research Laboratory plans to construct a new Marine Education Center.

The Nature Conservancy had representatives talk about its programs to balance the ecology of the 70 miles of Mississippi’s coastline with economic needs. Oyster reef restoration in Bay St. Louis and Biloxi Bay are two projects in which the Conservancy actively participates.

Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District has an array of programs available to help landowners.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Lab monitors fishing and shrimping in federal waters. Staff showed leadership class members turtle excluder devices, or TEDs, that shrimpers use in their nets.

The day at Gulf Coast Research Laboratory proved informative, and showed once again how much Jackson County and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have to offer.