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Bonnet Carré spillway opening is causing a fisheries disaster in Mississippi, governor says

Coast oystermen expect the worst from Bonnet Carre release

The 2016 release of flood waters from the Bonnet Carre spillway has Coast oystermen fearing devastation of oysters in the Mississippi Sound.
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The 2016 release of flood waters from the Bonnet Carre spillway has Coast oystermen fearing devastation of oysters in the Mississippi Sound.

Gov. Phil Bryant says he has requested that the federal government declare a fisheries disaster in Mississippi as mortality rates climb in the Mississippi Sound for dolphins, oysters and other marine life exposed to fresh water from the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway.

“We are currently observing significant adverse impacts to all components of Mississippi’s marine resources, including, but not limited to: oysters, crabs, shrimp and finfish.”

The spillway has opened an unprecedented two times this year, and most recently has been open since May 10, with no date set for closing. This also is the first time the spillway has opened two years in a row.

Bryant said death is particularly noticeable with oysters, which are unable to move. The oyster mortality rate, he said, is 70 percent, a figure that is expected to increase as the spillway remains open.

The letter says crab landings — the number of crabs harvested — are down 35 percent and also expected to climb. Shrimp season, he said, will start far later than the traditional June opening because numbers are so low.

“The declaration of a federal fisheries disaster for Mississippi may assist in obtaining financial assistance for all negatively impacted ecosystems, fisherman and related businesses in a timely manner, the governor’s letter concludes.

Bryant notified the public on Twitter of the letter, which is dated May 31.

Bryant has created an intra-agency and university task force to monitor environmental conditions and measure the impacts of the spillway opening in the Sound.

The state Department of Marine Resources, Department of Environmental Quality, University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, Mississippi State University and the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies will work together on the task force.

DMR is using independent methods to sample oyster reefs, shrimp, crabs and finfish.

IMMS, DMR and the MSU Department of Veterinary College are monitoring the number of stranded or deceased dolphins and sea turtles being reported in the Sound.

MDEQ will continue to perform water quality analysis on public beaches to ensure it is safe for human contact and recreation.

“The University of Southern Mississippi houses a diverse array of scientific expertise suited to explore and understand these types of events with significant coastal impacts,” Dr. Monty Graham, director of USM’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering in Gulfport, said in a news release.

“Specifically, we’ll be using various technologies and projects to gather data on biological resources such as oysters and crabs, monitor water quality components, use remote sensing and circulation modeling, and survey the impacts to seagrass, artificial reefs and channels.”

The news release said research findings will be regularly shared with state leaders and the public.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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