BILOXI, Miss. (WAFB) - At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, Mississippi, sea lions, sea turtles, and dolphins serve as eager ambassadors of the sea. However, the researchers and scientists who work with the animals every day say their message lately may be dark one.
“The dolphins being on top of the food chain are a very good biological indicator for the environment. They serve as a canary in the mine, so by watching them, we can predict where the environment will go,” said IMMS Director Dr. Moby Solangi. “It’s telling me there’s a huge amount of stress right now.”
More than 120 wild dolphins and more than 140 sea turtles have washed up dead in the Mississippi Sound, the body of water that extends from the Mississippi coastline to the barrier islands, in the last six months. Solangi explains many bear fresh water lesions, which allow bacteria and fungus to grow, killing the animal. Scientists in Mississippi believe fresh water pouring in from Bonnet Carre Spillway in Louisiana may be to blame.
“We’ve never seen anything like this happen in the past,” said Solangi.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) reports salinity levels in the Sound are well below average. Usually in the summer, salinity levels register at around 22 parts per thousand, but recent measurements show only 0 to 5 parts per thousand. With the spillways being required more and more to help control Mississippi River flooding, researchers fear the Coast doesn’t have time to recover and readjust.
Solangi also points out that the water coming into the Sound isn’t just fresh water, but Mississippi River water that could contain sediments and pollution from dozens of states.
“Unfortunately, you know, this wasn’t predicted when all these things were designed in the 20s and 30s. We’re really seeing an major ecological issue. The oyster production is pretty much gone, the blue crab fishery and many other aspects. I think there’s a lot of concerns,” said Solangi.
Researchers with MDMR say there’s little that can be done to fight the effects of the fresh water from the spillway, but researchers are currently monitoring the impacts of the Bonnet Carre on the fisheries of the Mississippi Sound.
“Specifically, scientists are using fishery independent methods to sample oyster reefs, shrimp, crabs and finfish while assessing hydrological parameters such as water temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and turbidity. Commercial landings data are also being evaluated monthly for any trends that may indicate the spillway is having a direct effect on specific species," said MDMR Executive Director Joe Spraggins.
Like Louisiana, Mississippi’s seafood industry is also reportedly taking a hit from the fresh water inundation. Workers at the Gulfport Harbor Bait Shop say it’s almost impossible to catch shrimp locally because fresh water is driving them deep into the Gulf. They’ve been forced to buy shrimp from as far away as Florida to keep their wells stocked for fishermen and tourists.
“Until that fresh water get out of here, we’re going to be in trouble for a while," said worker, James Stokes.
Mississippi leaders say they understand the need for flood protection, but they say something else has to be done to protect the Coast from fresh water as well.
“Of course lives are the most important, but livelihood is also important and quality of life is also. We feel like that has not been a factor in some of these equations,” said Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich.
Gilich hosted a meeting with all coastal mayors and officials from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources in an effort to share concerns and fight for what he calls a seat at the table when flood mitigation decisions are made. He believes there must be a way to mitigate flooding without devastating the environment at the same time. State leaders have also solicited the Army Corps of Engineers for more evaluation and consideration.
“Romans built aqueducts, right? So this is not putting somebody on the moon. Let’s figure out how the salinity can be maintained,” said Gilich.