First came Bonnet Carré. Then an algae bloom coated the Coast. ‘When is it going to stop?’

Algae bloom is closing Mississippi Coast beaches

A green-blue algae is blooming in the Mississippi Sound, fueled by the Mississippi River fresh water filled with sediments. That algae can cause major health risks and adds to the issues caused by the opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway.
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A green-blue algae is blooming in the Mississippi Sound, fueled by the Mississippi River fresh water filled with sediments. That algae can cause major health risks and adds to the issues caused by the opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway.

Prolonged opening of the Bonnet Carré spillway is creating headlines reminiscent of the 2010 BP oil spillway as potentially toxic blue-green algae closes beaches on the Mississippi Coast and prompts warnings not to eat seafood caught in infested waters.

Tourism leaders have worried all along that the prolonged release of fresh water from the Bonnet Carré Spillway will deter visitors.

The spillway has been open this year for a record total of 90 days, pushing trillions of gallons of Mississippi River water into Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi Sound.

The previous record for a spillway opening was 75 days in 1973, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District, which operates the Bonnet Carré. The Army Corps expects to begin closing the spillway in mid-July, based on current weather forecasts.

With fresh water comes sediment loaded with chemicals — from farms and development along the Mississippi — that contribute to the growth of algae.

As a blue-green algae bloom waxes and wanes in the Mississippi Sound, the state departments of Environmental Quality and Marine Resources are tracking its movements and notifying the public of beaches closed to swimming and fishing in Hancock and Harrison counties. People can sign up for text and email alerts that will give them the latest on closures.

“Depending on tide, depending on wind, it could push it ashore,” said Steven Bailey, director of field services for DEQ, which handles inshore monitoring from Hancock County to Ocean Springs while DMR focuses on offshore locations

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the bloom,” Bailey said. “There’s always going to be a presence inshore or offshore until it dies.”

Coast residents who make their living from the water, directly or indirectly, are growing more anxious by the day.

“The biggest thing is, when is it going to stop?” Pass Christian Mayor Chip McDermott asked Wednesday. “It’s tough business in the Mississippi Sound.”

‘Definitely, we’re concerned’

Seafood distributors are beginning to get questions about the availability of their wares, while hoteliers anxiously watch bookings.

Linda Hornsby, executive director of the Missisissippi Hotel & Lodging Association, is closely tracking occupancy and rental rates for the Coast. She has asked about a dozen members if bookings are down. Some members say they have had cancellations and comments about the water advisories, while others say bookings have not been affected.

Overall, occupancy rates were up this June over last June, but the first algae advisory was issued only Saturday and limited to the waters off four beaches in Hancock County.

Hornsby also tracks the average daily rate hotels charge, which she said is the more important number because it indicates the revenue generated per room. That number is down this June compared to last June.

“This will tell me that they had to drop their rates to get their occupancy to at least what it was last year,” Hornsby said. “It looks to me like they’re dropping their rates.”

Rates normally go up this time of year, she said. “This would be the prime season.”

Kenny Glavan, regional director of hotel operations for the Biloxi company Lodging & Leisure Investments, said June has been a good month for their Coast hotels, including Margaritaville and the White House hotels in Biloxi and Sleep Inn & Suites in Gulfport.

Good weather has helped, he said, with less rain this June.

“Definitely, we’re concerned,” said Glavan, also a Biloxi City Council member. “Right now, as we hit the middle of the summer season, it’s had a minimal effect.”

At seafood shops, customers want to know if their favorite fish will continue to be available, said Marlon Moore of Quality Poultry & Seafood in Biloxi.

“Right now, we just have people inquiring. It hasn’t affected our business but if it does, we’ll make the adjustments.”

Joe Spraggins, executive director of DMR, said none of the algae tested has proven toxic so far. He said the warning about avoiding fish caught in or around the blooms was issued out of caution.

Besides, he said, DMR employees out on the water haven’t been able to catch fish around the blooms. They know to swim away.

Talking points for tourists

South Mississippi’s tourism bureau, Coastal Mississippi, sent talking points Wednesday to its “partners and colleagues” about the beach closures. The email noted that DEQ had on Monday extended closure advisories caused by algae to waters off beaches in Pass Christian, Long Beach and Gulfport.

His email included links to other activities and attractions tourists can enjoy, including golfing, shopping, museums, breweries, tours and live music.

“As we continue to see increases in visitors to Coastal Mississippi during the height of our travel season,” his email said, “we want to ensure that your staff is armed with appropriate information regarding beach closures as well as the breadth of opportunities available throughout the region.”

Meanwhile, regional publications spread word of the closures on their websites and through social media, generating several thousand shares on Facebook by day’s end.