Gulf of Mexico
Sarah Warnock / Clarion Ledger

'A canary in the mine': Dolphins, turtles dying. Flooding disaster hits Mississippi Sound.

The Bonnet Carre Spillway near New Orleans has been opened twice this year to relieve pressure from flooding. The spillway diverts the freshwater, which eventually flows to the Mississippi Coast. Freshwater contact, along with herbicides and other pollutants, is killing marine wildlife. Economic impact to Mississippi is massive, affecting fishing industry, tourism, restaurants and more.

With a swollen Mississippi River and above average local rainfall, much attention has been focused on the 544,000 acres of flooded land in the south Delta. But just below the surface in the Mississippi Sound, another disaster is unfolding.

The Bonnet Carre Spillway located near New Orleans has been opened twice this year to relieve pressure on the levee system that protects New Orleans from flooding. The spillway diverts water from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain. The freshwater eventually flows to the Mississippi coast where it is wreaking havoc on marine life.

Dead dolphins with freshwater lesions on them are being found in high numbers on Mississippi's coast.

Dead dolphins with freshwater lesions on them are being found in high numbers on Mississippi's coast. (Photo: IMMS/Special to Clarion Ledger)

"It's a very, very serious issue," said Moby Solangi, president and executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. "It's almost a crisis.

Solangi explained lesions develop when dolphins have too much contact with freshwater. They also become portals for bacterial and viral infections.

Also in April, 57 sea turtles were reported dead. Solangi said the high numbers of dead dolphins and sea turtles are indicators of a greater problem.

'It's basically a freshwater hurricane'

"Dolphins and turtles are sentinel species — a canary in the mine," Solangi said. "They are indicator species of the health of the environment. By the time they are affected, everything below them is affected."

The freshwater is only a part of the problem. Solangi said chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers come with it and can create a dead zone where nothing can grow.

"You're talking about trillions of gallons of freshwater and pollutants," Solangi said. "It's basically a freshwater hurricane. The entire food chain is disrupted."

Some species will vacate an area when salinity levels become low while others, such as oysters, are unable to leave. In the case of dolphins and turtles, Solangi said they choose to stay.

"They have certain territories," Solangi said. "They have certain homes and they don't leave."

Joe Jewell, director of marine fisheries at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, also weighed in on the effect of the Bonnet Carre Spillway opening.

"It's going to have significant impacts to all our resources," Jewell said. "It's having an impact on everything."

Workers open bays of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, to divert rising water from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, upriver from New Orleans, in Norco, La., May 10. Freshwater from the diversion eventually makes its way to the Mississippi Coast, affecting marine life.
Workers open bays of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, to divert rising water from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain, upriver from New Orleans, in Norco, La., May 10. Freshwater from the diversion eventually makes its way to the Mississippi Coast, affecting marine life. (Photo: Gerald Herbert, AP)

Millions of dollars at stake

Such impact costs money. Jewell said the 2011 opening of the spillway caused major damage to oyster reefs in Mississippi that never fully recovered.

"We spent several million dollars and are still spending to replenish those oyster reefs," Jewel said. "We really have not recovered. All those gains are likely to be very negatively impacted."

The seafood industry in Mississippi is big business, The crabs, oysters and fish that are harvested generate jobs and money. According to the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center, Mississippi's seafood industry economic impacts are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Jewell said the numbers of crabs coming from the western part of Mississippi's coast are down and restaurants that sell locally caught seafood products are being affected.

The recreational fishing industry is also feeling the pain. Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Charters fishes the western side of the coast as well as the Biloxi Marsh in Louisiana.

"It's been the most challenging stuff we've ever encountered," Schindler said. "The big thing is it pushed all the trout out.

"That's our big spring fish. We still catch some here and there, but we put our efforts toward drum, redfish, sheepshead, and flounder. They seem to tolerate the ultra-low salinity better."

Because of the lack of speckled trout, Schindler said some of his clients have opted to book trips later in the summer. Schindler said he and the seven other guides he works with have still been busy with other kinds of trips. He said some other guides in the area haven't been so fortunate.

"Some of the guys in Pass (Christian) have just pushed everything back and said, 'We're not going,'" Schindler said.

Mississippi wants voice on decisions

The Bonnet Carre Spillway has been opened 14 times since 1937. However, six of those openings took place since 2008 and two of them happened this spring. With the frequency of openings in recent years, both Solangi and Jewell say Mississippi needs representation.

"All we do is receive negative impacts," Jewell said. "We have no benefit and no voice in the process.

"We want to work with the Corps (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). We want to become part of the process so that our environmental resources and the economy here is considered when they open the structures."

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood also wants representation. On May 21 Hood sent a letter to USACE Maj. Gen. Richard G. Kaiser requesting a meeting with Kaiser and staff to discuss protection of both Mississippi's Delta and coastal natural resources. He also requested that Mississippi's attorney general and MDMR, "be included in all future stakeholder meetings regarding the opening of the BCS and Mississippi flood management."

Mississippian Brian Broom is an avid outdoorsman who has worked for the Clarion Ledger for almost 30 years. To read more of his stories, please subscribe today.

Contact Brian Broom at 601-961-7225 or bbroom@gannett.com. Follow Clarion LedgerOutdoors on Facebook and @BrianBroom on Twitter.

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