Gulf of Mexico
Dr. Tim Morgan, center, chief pathologist at Mississippi State University college of veterinary medicine, along with other veterinarians from MSU, prepares to conduct a necropsy on a dolphin. (Photo: Institute for Marine Mammal Studies/Special to Clarion Ledger)

Worse than BP oil spill: Freshwater damage from flooding, spillway release hits Miss. hard

> Water is being diverted from historic Mississippi River flood to protect New Orleans, other areas. > Dolphin and sea turtle deaths are significant, experts say. > Freshwater diversion also affecting tourism, with fishing trips being canceled.

The Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana continues to pour fresh water from the Mississippi River into the Mississippi Sound, and the number of dead dolphins in Mississippi waters is already significantly higher than in 2010 after the BP oil spill.

"It's 128 (dead) dolphins and 154 sea turtles," said Moby Solangi, president and executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, on June 7. "The dolphins — quite a large number of them have lesions."

The lesions are caused by fresh water pouring into the Sound. Exactly what is killing dolphins without lesions and turtles isn't known, but Solangi said it is related to the lack of salinity.

"We're still investigating the cause and effect," Solangi said. "It could be from their diet or other things.

"Now, literally, it's a freshwater environment. It changes everything from the bottom up."

The water is being diverted from the historic Mississippi River flood that is taking place to protect New Orleans and areas south of the Bonnet Carre Spillway. The spillway was first opened this year in February and remained open for 43 days. On May 10 it was opened again making 2019 the first year it has ever been opened twice in one year.

More sustained damage than BP oil spill

The prolonged exposure could have dolphins on the coast dying at an even faster rate. Between May 22 and June 7, 48 dead dolphins were documented. According to Solangi, that number is roughly the average number of dead dolphins found in an entire year for the last several years and the total of 128 is higher than what Mississippi encountered during the 2010 BP oil spill.

"During the BP oil spill we had 91 dolphins the entire year," Solangi said. "So, that's a considerable increase and the year isn't over yet. Ecologically, we're seeing a lot more sustained damage than the BP oil spill."

Solangi also said the number of dead sea turtles found in 2010 was 309, but noted that there were hundreds of oil spill responders looking for dead animals even in remote areas

Salinity levels along the Mississippi coast should typically be around 18 parts per thousand, but now some areas are down to two parts per thousand. Ronnie Daniels of Fisher-Man Guide Service said he recently saw the effects of low salinity on speckled trout and redfish as far south as the south side of Cat Island.

"We've caught a lot of healthy fish, but that was the first time I've seen multiple fish on one trip south of the islands with lesions," Daniels said. "Now to see them south of the islands was disturbing to me."

The freshwater diversion is also affecting Daniels' bottom line. He said clients have been cancelling fishing trips because speckled trout have been pushed out of their normal feeding and spawning grounds by low salinity as has much of the normal marine life. On a recent trip from Hopedale, Louisiana, to Pass Christian the effects were obvious.

"I did not see one bird," Daniels said. "I did not see one fish.

"I did not see one dolphin and I did not see one shrimp popping out. I saw absolutely nothing."

Daniels is also concerned about future numbers of speckled trout in the area because the freshwater is negatively impacting their breeding.

"These trout should be spawning right now," Daniels said. "These trout aren't going to spawn in that one or two parts salinity. It's just too low."

A fisheries disaster for Mississippi

Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said the the oyster, shrimp and crabbing industries are also suffering.

"We're about (at the) 60 percent range of total loss of oysters," Spraggins said. "It could go to 70.

"It could go to 80. The crabs, we're down about 36 percent of what we would normally harvest. The shrimp season will open later."

The situation has had such severe impacts that Gov. Phil Bryant called for it to be declared a federal fisheries disaster.

"We know we're going to have a disaster," Spraggins said. "The mortality of oysters is going up every day. The mortality rate of crabs is going up every day."

Spraggins explained that managing Mississippi River floods is based on protocol set in the 1930s, but weather patterns have changed and flooding is more frequent than it once was. To that end, Mississippi leaders are calling for a seat at the decision-making table, which Mississippi currently does not have.

Support for change isn't limited to Mississippians. Daniels said Louisiana residents also attended a recent meeting in Gulfport where citizens and politicians gathered to express their concerns.

"If you had to sum it up, the general consensus of everybody was we need our elected officials, and not just our state officials, to find a more responsible way to deal with the water that comes down here.

"I know there's a lot of variables, but you cannot convince me that with all these people this is the best we can do."

See Clarion - Ledger article . . .