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Dolphin deaths in the Mississippi Sound this year now number 80

Mississippi officials blame the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway
Updated: May. 22, 2019 at 4:55 PM CDT
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Gulfport, Miss. (WVUE) - “Apollo," an eight-year-old bottlenose dolphin, is one of the lucky ones.

Rescued after suffering injuries in the wild, he lives at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.

In the Mississippi Sound, dolphins are dying by the dozens, a total of 80 so far this year, according to the Institute’s latest count, and double the average number for an entire year.

Dr. Moby Solangi, Executive Director of the Institute, notes dolphins sit at the top of the food chain, an indicator species for the overall health of the ecosystem.

"We use them as the sentinels of the environment and they are in trouble,” Solangi said.

He lays the blame squarely on this spring’s two openings of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which is designed to safeguard New Orleans from flooding and dumps trillions of gallons of fresh water and pollutants into Lake Pontchartrain and eventually into the Mississippi Sound.

Solangi notes the river is loaded with fertilizers and other chemicals that runoff from all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.

“My fear is it’s only going to get worse,” said George Ricks, a charter boat captain and activist who has been tracking deaths in St. Bernard Parish.

In addition to the dolphin deaths, 110 sea turtles have died this year, Solangi said.

Federal law mandates the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operate the spillway when the Mississippi flow reaches 1.25 million cubic feet of water per second.

While the Corps maintains it has little leeway under existing law to operate the structures differently, congress has directed the Corps to examine how it operates other structures and floodways upriver, including the Old River Control Structure and the Morganza Spillway.

“This is an engineering issue,” said Solangi, who argues the needs of Mississippi are being sacrificed for the needs of Louisiana, including seafood interests of the Gulf Coast.

Legal experts say operating the Morganza more often would involve a complex set of legal issues over the impacts on communities downstream, including some not directly in the spillway.

Wednesday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood requested a meeting with the Corps Mississippi Division commander, General Richard Kaiser.

In a letter to Kaiser, Hood expressed "profound concerns regarding the need to both protect our citizens and their properties from river flooding and reverse adverse impacts to the marine ecosystems from floodwater management.

While Hood’s letter also raised concerns about flooding upriver in the Mississippi delta, he wrote he was “particularly concerned about the opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway.”

As of Wednesday, the Corps was operating 148 of the spillway’s 350 bays.

“This is an engineering issue," Solangi said. "When it was designed in the 1930’s, the conditions were different.”

Solangi believes fresh water and pollutants poured into the spillway will linger in the lake for months, steadily flowing into surrounding bays and the Sound.

“The issue that we’re dealing with is much more serious than the BP oil spill," Solangi said.

While he vehemently opposes Louisiana’s plans to build large structures and divert Mississippi River water into Breton Sound, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority argues the structures are critical to the state’s plans to rebuild its coastline.

The Mississippi Sound and surrounding waters are home to an estimated 5,000 dolphins, the largest population in the United States, Solangi said.

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