‘They’re all dead:’ Mississippi oyster farms take hit from Bonnet Carré Spillway
Fishermen in South Louisiana have a warning for the Mississippi Coast: If you think the Bonnet Carré Spillway has wreaked havoc in the Mississippi Sound, just wait until Louisiana gets permission for a new diversion of Mississippi River water.
The fishermen in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes say they have watched saltwater marshes, shrimp, oysters and fish disappear over the last decade because of Mississippi River diversions that flow continuously into the Breton Sound estuary.
They have been trying to fight the state of Louisiana’s plan for new river diversions that would flow into the Barataria Bay and Breton Sound estuaries south of New Orleans. The state is forging ahead with plans, claiming the diversions will build land along Louisiana’s coast, where wetlands the size of a football field sink into the water every 100 minutes.
But like other plans throughout history to control the mighty Mississippi, past diversions have failed to achieve their intended purposes. As a byproduct, some argue that they have led to land loss, not gain. Two scientific studies of three Mississippi River diversions already in place, the most recent out of Louisiana State University, document land loss.
The state and big environmental groups are pressing ahead with the two proposed river diversions, expected to consume more than $2.2 billion in funds from the BP catastrophe in 2010.
George Ricks, a charter boat captain from St. Bernard Parish, refers to diversion plans as “a money grab,” while the state contends they are the best hope for building up the shrinking Coast.
“Our ecosystem is devastated right now because of river water influxes,” said Ricks, who also heads the board at The Save Louisiana Coalition. “The whole ecosystem has changed. . . You’re converting what was a brackish water system into a freshwater system.”
The opening this year of the Bonnet Carré Spillway for an unprecedented 122 days has driven home the common interest of South Mississippi and South Louisiana in preserving seafood and tourism industries that have sustained both coasts for generations.
On both Coasts, trillions of gallons of Mississippi River water poured from the Bonnet Carré into Lake Pontchartrain and waterways beyond, creating potentially toxic algae blooms that closed waters to swimming and fishing across all shorelines. Oysters dolphins and sea turtles died. Shrimp disappeared.
The Bonnet Carré’s toxic shock to the Mississippi Sound ecosystem also brought Ricks to South Mississippi, where he sounded the alarm about the mid-Breton diversion at a packed symposium hosted this summer by Moby Solangi, dolphin expert and executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
Ricks returns Wednesday to speak at a forum the Sun Herald is hosting on the Bonnet Carré and diversions. He’s immersed himself in the issue for six years.
Some of the river water from the mid-Breton diversion will make its way into the Sound.
Unlike the Bonnet Carré, opened for flood relief when the river is high, the proposed diversions will run year-round, every year, at various levels. They will run at maximum capacities when the river is high.
“The whole issue — what did my dad used to say? ‘You can’t breed giraffes and get monkeys.’
“You can’t have saltwater species in river water. Simple as that. Our crabs, our shrimp, our oysters, speckled trout, our tourism, we can’t do it in river water.
“If we had to rely on catfish, bass, frogs and alligators, that would be one thing, but our whole economy is driven off of our saltwater industries, and that’s being eliminated by this influx of river water.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Learn more about Bonnet Carré spillway's lasting effects
The recent Bonnet Carre spillway opening will have lasting effects on health, wildlife and industry for years to come on the Mississippi Sound. The Sun Herald has reported extensively on this issue over the last few months, and we are continuing our commitment with a special community forum in partnership with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. Join Sun Herald investigative reporter Anita Lee, as she discusses the issue and impact of the spillway opening with local experts Rick Burris, Moby Solangi, Ph.D and Capt. George Ricks. Register for the forum here.
Losing a way of life
Fishermen whose families have plied Breton Sound and surrounding waters for generations don’t need studies to tell them what river diversions are doing. They see the changes and feel them beneath their feet.
In St. Bernard Parish, degradation in the upper Breton Sound started accelerating in 2011 with the widening of Mardi Gras Pass.
The Mardi Gras Pass diversion started as an assist for the oyster industry, releasing enough river water into Breton Sound to prevent oyster drills that destroyed oysters at high salinity levels. In 2011, the river breached an access road at Mardi Gras Pass, Ricks said.
The decision was made to leave it open. He said the breach was at first 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep. It is now 375 feet wide and 65 feet deep with a flow rate of around 20,000 cubic feet per second.
By way of comparison, 8,000 cfs would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in 11 seconds, the Superdome in 4.5 hours, according to the organization The Mississippi River Delta, a supporter of diversions to build land.
The Caenarvon Diversion above Mardi Gras Pass also was originally designed as a salinity control structure, opening in 1991. Operations have been turned over to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, the same Louisiana state agency that would own and operate the new diversions.
The flow rate is currently about 500 cfs, but can go higher. The diversion is open year-round, Ricks said.
With the diversions, he and other fishermen have watched their marshes disappear. Mississippi River water is laden with agricultural chemicals from farmland upstream. With phosphates and nitrate flowing over marsh grass, the roots don’t have to push as deep to find nutrients.
Storms such as Hurricane Katrina pull up shallow-rooted marsh like carpet, the fishermen say, destroying wetlands nurseries and leaving near-shore structures more susceptible to storm surge.
Kim Serigné Jr., a sixth-generation fisherman and trapper, said his family’s ancestral acreage is in the Caenarvon Diversion outfall area of Plaquemines Parish. He feels the changes under his feet and he does not believe climate change is responsible.
He has watched the river water flood the land when the diversion was open.
“Over the years, my family’s property went from being hard ground to basically being like Jello, where if your foot breaks through the crust you will sink to your waste,” Serigné said. “When I was a kid, this land was hard enough to play baseball on.”
Serigné, 38, said the brackish and saltwater marsh grasses of his childhood are gone.
“There’s so many types of grasses growing down here that we’ve never seen, but their root systems are not deep,” he said. “You can grab them and pull and they come right out in your hand.”
Serigné dropped out of school at age 15 to fish and trap. With the changing environment, he said he realized three years ago he would need another job. He went to work full time at the St. Bernard Fire Department.
He still fishes, but it’s tough. The lower salinity levels that diversions create mean he has to travel further, and use more gas, to find shrimp. Crabs are harder to find, too.
The mid-Breton Diversion is bigger than any these Louisiana fishermen have seen, with a minimum year-round flow rate of 5,000 cfs. The maximum flow rate would be 75,000 cfs, according to a permit notice from the state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that will ultimately decide whether to allow the diversions.
Serigné has a warning for Mississippi Coast residents: “Get ready to see your ecosystem change, because it’s coming. Change is coming and it’s going to be negative change. I have not seen one positive impact from any diversion.”
Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority believes the mid-Barataria and mid-Breton diversions will reconnect the Mississippi River to sediment-starved wetlands in both basins.
Brad Barth, CPRA sediment diversion program manager, said the diversion structures will be passive, unlike the Bonnet Carré.
“It’s based on what mother nature gives you,” he said. “It’s very dependent on what the level is in the river and what the level is in the basin. It’s not a pump, so it’s based on what the river gives us.”
“We believe protection of our coast and restoration of our coast is of upmost importance,” Barth said, “and we’re going to use every tool in our toolbox, including dredging and diversions.”
Both projects are years away, although the mid-Barataria diversion design and permitting is further along. They have received a key waiver from the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The projects will not have to comply with a provision that protects dolphins from harm or death because Congress in 2018 directed the National Marine Fisheries Service to grant the waiver. The waiver is streamlining the process for federal permitting, but the state is being required to minimize and monitor impacts on dolphins.
“Any time the Bonnet Carré opens,” said Solangi of IMMS, “there is a spike in dolphins deaths.”
The Mississippi Sound dolphin stock, which extends into Louisiana waters, is the largest in the United States. Solangi said the stock is estimated at 2,700 to 3,300 dolphins.
When exposed to too much fresh water, dolphins develop skin lesions, sicken and die.
Here’s a look at dolphin strandings:
- Normal year: About 30 to 50 dead dolphins
- 2010, BP oil spill: 91 dead dolphins
- 2011, Bonnet Carré opened: 147 dead dolphins
- 2019, Bonnet Carré opened: 142 dead dolphins so far
The state of Louisiana also is seeking an exemption from the Magnuson-Stevens Act that protects essential fish habitat.
“If this amendment is adopted as is, the state of Mississippi will lose any legal argument that it has against the proposed diversion,” Solangi said. “This amendment is being made without any consideration of how this will impact Mississippi and its resources.”
Just as Mississippi has been fighting for a voice in Bonnet Carré openings, the state has had little if any input into Louisiana’s diversion plans, said fishermen Ricks, a regular at CPRA meetings.
“They never speak about Mississippi,” he said. “No way in the course of conversation does Mississippi come in. They’re concerned about Louisiana, that’s all. They’re not concerned about Mississippi. Nobody’s representing Mississippi.”