Hancock County

Thousands of ‘the most popular sport fish on the Coast’ released into Mississippi Sound

The Bonnet Carré Spillway’s historic two openings this year have taken a toll on Mississippi’s marine life. Oysters are dead, dolphins have washed up on beaches and fish stocks have been significantly affected, officials say.

On Friday, efforts to replenish one fish population got back on track after being delayed by the spillway opening.

Michael Lee, aquaculture manager of the state Department of Marine Resources, is part of an initiative with the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Research Lab that raises and releases spotted seatrout to help increase the population.

Since 2006, the initiative has released more than 1.5 million spotted seatrout into coastal waterways.

“This trout is the most popular sport fish on the Coast here and really important to the economy,” Lee said.

Usually releases begin in May, but because of the openings of the Bonnet Carré and the influx of fresh water, the program’s releases of both trout and oysters were put on hold until there was a better understanding of what the effects were going to be in Mississippi’s waters.

Friday’s release was the first since the spillway closed in July. More than 130,000 juvenile seatrout were released from two locations, the Cedar Point boat launch and the Merlin Necaise boat launch in Bay St. Louis.

“There was a huge displacement of most of the marine life, especially on the west end over here (in Hancock County),” Lee said. “We know for a fact that most of the fish didn’t spawn over here, so there were not many juvenile fish here throughout most of the summer.

He said they waited until the salinity of the water was closer to normal, but wanted to do the release before the weather and waters get too cold.

There are two more releases planned.

Kelly Lucas, director of the USM Research Lab’s Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, said that although there has been a large displacement of fish and damage done to the ecosystem, the releases will hopefully act as a “boost.”

“It’s been a rough year with the spillway opening, a lot of fresh water displaced the fish in the area,” Lucas said. “This is a way to get Mother Nature to get a jump start, get some fish out there that will hopefully grow up to continue to populate our spotted seatrout population.”

She said the program also aims to teach people about conserving the environment.

“This is a huge conservation effort. It can teach you a lot about the biology of the systems and keep you connected with your community and your environment. It helps education people on what it takes to keep a healthy population of fish in out waterways.”

Although Mississippi is just beginning to see the effects of the spillway, more may be seen in the next few years. Lee said that although the organizations don’t know what those impacts will be, they believe that what they do now will make a difference.

“All we can hope is that this stock enhancement is helpful as another way to manage our fisheries,” Lee said. “We don’t know how much spawning actually took place this year, so this is one thing we know we can do. We hope we have come impact. In years to come, when hopefully our numbers are much higher, we can release a lot more. We’re confident we’re having some kind of impact.”

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Alyssa Newton is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a background in television, radio and print. She’s originally from Dothan, Alabama and has a journalism degree from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Her passion lies in storytelling, news, sports and a strong espresso.