HARRISON COUNTY, Miss. (WLOX) - When the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources started seeing evidence of the blue-green algae, marine scientist Kristina Broussard said she knew it was going to be an “unprecedented bloom".
“When we saw it the first day, it was over two miles long. That’s why the alarm went off,” Broussard said.
That was on June 12 near Cat Island.
The bloom later moved on shore, and it has hung along the beaches ever since. The bloom has spread the length of the entire Gulf Coast, shutting down the waters along South Mississippi beaches and creating grave concern in an economy that depends on tourism.
On June 17, Broussard’s team sent a water sample to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab in Charleston, S.C., and it confirmed what Broussard already knew. There was a “presence of toxins” that the algae puts off.
Those toxins can cause a rash on human skin and can cause stomach ailments if water containing the toxins are consumed.
Broussard said the toxin wasn’t at a “level of concern” at that point, but it was enough for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to begin issuing water quality advisories. Those advisories told people not to swim in the water or eat fish caught in the water.
A week later, DMR asked for a second toxicity test, this time for one that affects fish flesh. That test showed no traceable amounts.
As a result, DMR has not closed any of the offshore fisheries because they believe the fish in the open water are safe to eat. DMR does agree with MDEQ’s assertion that fish caught in-shore, from piers or close to the beaches, should not be eaten.
The tricky part is the algae blooms grow and shrink with unpredictability.
“The algae bloom itself can grow exponentially in a short time,” explained Steven Bailey, chief of field services division at MDEQ. “It can double its size in ten minutes.”
That happens when the algae gets a “burst of nutrients,” Broussard said. But the algae can die off just as quickly, and when that happens, the toxins are released.
Broussard’s team has been examining the water samples collected by MDEQ daily, and she said there is no consistent pattern to where the algae, and thus the toxins, are.
“We’re seeing it randomly throughout the Coast at different levels,” she said.
The blooms “build and crash” almost daily which is typical of an algae bloom of this kind, Broussard said. Many Coast residents are skeptical of the danger because they can’t see the algae.
Megan Fleming, senior scientist with DMR cautions that “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there". The algae has to clump together in masses before it can be seen. Because the blooms move in and out with irregularity, Broussard and Bailey both think a cautious approach is necessary.
“We’re issuing advisories to the people to make sure they are informed of the algae bloom and the dangers associated with that bloom,” Bailey said.
“This is definitely a concern for us,” said Broussard. "At this time, we’re still seeing high cell counts, and that is enough to cause a concern,” she said.
DMR will now to send samples to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab near Mobile to continue toxin analysis on the offshore fisheries. The lab is taking their own samples in Mississippi and Alabama water to test for the algae and toxins.
They said they may have some data to report by the end of the week.