‘They are pretty much gone.’ Bonnet Carré closure too late for Pass seafood workers

Tim Kulikowski and Jeremy Forte are hoping for a good crop of white shrimp. That’s all they can do.

The men who work for Pass Christian wholesaler Jerry Forte Seafood were pleased with Monday’s news that the Bonnet Carré Spillway was being closed. But the damage has already been done to brown shrimp harvests, they said.

“This is by far the fewest brown shrimp we’ve ever seen in a brown shrimp season,” Forte said. “I think they are pretty much gone.”

2019 marked the first time since the spillway’s completion in 1931 that it has been opened twice in a single year, and the first time it’s been opened in back to back years. The spillway is expected to be completely closed by the weekend if the weather permits.

The spillway funnels freshwater from the Mississippi River that eventually ends up in the Mississippi Sound, changing the Sound’s ecosystem. Shrimp are disappearing. Oysters, once a big moneymaker, can’t move and are dead or dying. Fish are covered in lesions. Harmful toxic algae are blooming.

It’s taken its toll on fishing industry players like Jerry Forte Seafood. The company opened in the 1970s — a time when there were a lot more fishermen working the coast, Kulikowski said.

“When you have a disaster like that ... I don’t want to say it’s a nail in the coffin, but that closes a lot of doors,” he said.

In years past, the months of May and June were wide open. Big boats would catch around 10,000 pounds of brown shrimp, also known as summer shrimp, in a week’s time. This year, you’d be lucky to see anything above 2,000. Some shrimpers have had to go as far as the Alabama line. The season in Mississippi typically opens in early June, Kulikowski said.

This is the worst year he said he’s seen.

“There is no comparison,” Kulikowski said. “That’s strictly because of that influx of freshwater. ...Once the shrimp are in here and they get pushed out, they don’t come back.”

They’ve also had to deal with concerns over seafood safety. In June, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality began to issue closures for coastal beaches due to the toxic algae. The department also warned residents not to eat fish or seafood from affected areas.

Calls poured into the company last month about their seafood, and customers stopped by to ask questions.

“I probably had to explain the situation as to what’s going on — if the seafood is safe — 20 to 30 times a day, so that got old,” Forte said. “After a while, it kind of takes the toll on your mind.”

Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Executive Director Joe Spraggins told the Clarion-Ledger that seafood caught outside the affected areas were safe, and last week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said that off-shore, locally-caught seafood was safe to eat.

“If the seafood would have been that bad, they would of shut us down a long time ago just like after the (BP) oil spill,” Kulikowski said. “We all eat a lot of the stuff they are catching, and we are still here. ...We’ve known that for a while.”

There’s still hope for the white shrimp season that is set to open sometime in August. Those shrimp are more tolerant to freshwater and grow quicker. There have been a few reports of smaller white shrimp sightings, Kulikowski said.

“I know that won’t pull us out of the hole completely, but it’d help for sure,” he said. “Hopefully, with them closing the spillway, it keeps them shrimp in the estuaries for longer (and) they grow faster.”

Pass Christian Mayor Chipper McDermott said it’s going to take some time for the seafood industry is his town to return to normal.

“It ain’t like you’re sewing up an arm ‘cause it’s bleeding and, you know, you’re finished,” he said. “It’s going to take a while for this to clean up. ...The water is going to get better. It’ll come back. Nature will take care of itself. How long it takes? I don’t know.”