Mississippi governor asks for federal fisheries disaster declaration

USM, IMMS & DMR will collaborate to research the impact of the spillway opening

USM investigating the impact freshwater is having on the Mississippi Sound

BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Gov. Phil Bryant is asking for a federal fisheries disaster declaration for Mississippi due to the Bonnet Carré Spillway opening. Such a declaration could help all those negatively impacted by the freshwater intrusion, including fishermen and related businesses, obtain financial assistance.

“This is probably the most impactful event we’ve had since the BP oil spill,” said Monty Graham, the director of the School of Ocean Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi.

In a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Bryant expressed deep concern over the influx of freshwater into the Mississippi Sound and the adverse effects it’s already having on our marine resources.

“The current oyster mortality rate is estimated at 70%, and we anticipate this increasing over time as the Bonnet Carré Spillway remains open. Crab landings are currently estimated at a 35% loss,” Bryant wrote. “The 2019 shrimp season has historically opened the first week in June. We are anticipating a much later date for this opening and much lower shrimp landings.”

He went on to say the impact on marine finfish is currently being assessed and that the impact of freshwater on “larval growth and juvenile recruitment” could impact the fishery for many years to come. Also, a combined number of more than 200 dolphins and sea turtles have washed ashore from the freshwater intrusion since the spillway opened.

To get a better picture of exactly what’s happening in the Mississippi Sound, the governor said he’s directed the University of Southern Mississippi to work with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, as well as the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, to conduct a full assessment of impacts to marine resources as well as other ecosystem impacts.

“This work is a priority for the University of Southern Mississippi in the immediate future as USM researchers all along the Gulf Coast continue to pursue advanced understanding of this critical body of water,” said University President Rodney Bennett. “I am proud that USM is best positioned to lead this important work, and our efforts will reflect our significant commitment to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as our responsibility to the state as a leader in public higher education and research.”

USM researchers from its School of Ocean Science and Engineering, located at the Marine Research Center in Gulfport, the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, and the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, have begun a thorough examination of the spillway’s effects on the Mississippi Sound and will continue their work for as long as the effects are measurable and impactful.

One of the areas the researchers at the university have expertise in is modelling, so they are able to backtrack how far out the animals have washed from.

“There’s going to be an investigation first we are going to have to find out what the damages are, what the causes are and then make suggestions to a variety of folks,” said Moby Solangi with the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies.

The staff at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies will continue to monitor the condition of the living animals and perform necropsies on the dead ones while the investigation continues in the water.

“South Mississippi’s greatest resource is our Gulf, and we owe it to the people and ecosystem whose lives are directly impacted by the opening of the spillway to be transparent in our findings. Routine public updates will be provided as our analyses continues to evolve,” said Read Hendon, associate director for the School of Ocean Science and Engineering’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. “Our scientists have dedicated their lives to better understanding our local waters to help protect both the marine life and those who utilize the Gulf.”

Bryant promised those findings will be released in the coming weeks once the research is complete. Once the data becomes available it will be issued to the public via the Department of Marine Resources. The intent is to provide daily updates, as long as there are new changes to what’s being found everyday.

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