Ship Island Excursions has survived hurricanes, global recessions, a world war and a host of economic challenges since the ferry company began taking passengers to the barrier islands that dot coastal Mississippi in the 1920s. But this year, a new threat has emerged: an explosion of blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, that has shut down virtually all of Mississippi’s beaches since July 4.
No one knows when the algae will disappear, and many wonder how many businesses that operate in the region will survive the hit.
“Beach vendors have been wiped out,” said Louis Skrmetta, operations manager for Ship Island Excursions. “I’ve never seen something so dramatic. It’s very similar to the BP oil spill. … People are frightened to just walk in the sand.”
Scientists have never seen anything like this before in the ocean off the Mississippi coast ― blue-green algal blooms are normally confined to fresh-water species. Mississippi officials say the bloom is the result of record flooding this year in the Midwest, which has pushed a deluge of polluted, nitrogen-rich water down the Mississippi River. It has forced state officials to issue water and health advisories warning people to stay out of the water and to avoid contaminated seafood.
Exposure to the algae can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and kidney and liver damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s particularly dangerous for pets; dogs in several Southern states have died after exposure to blue-green algae in freshwater environments this summer.
Mississippi business and fishery experts say they’ve never seen such a massive algal bloom spread in coastal waters. Many blame the record 10 trillion gallons of Mississippi River water that the Army Corps of Engineers diverted from the flooding New Orleans area. The Corps opened the Bonnet Carre Spillway twice for a record 123 days, pouring fertilizer and industrial waste-laden river water into Lake Pontchartrain, which drains into the Mississippi Sound.
State marine officials say the diversion has killed sensitive oyster reefs, wiped out brown shrimp and crab catches, and altered the salinity levels of the entire Mississippi coastal estuarine area. While salinity levels are finally returning to normal, water health advisories for blue-green algae remain on state beaches.
Hotels, restaurants and other coastal businesses who depend on summer tourism to get through the year are facing big losses, said Coastal Mississippi, an organization that tracks business development.
Beach vendors, fishing charters, and other beachfront establishments that are reliant upon the health of the Mississippi Sound have seen “devastating losses” in revenue, the group said in an email, “seeing decreases in business of up to 70 percent” from last year.
“It could be the new normal. ... It would be a tourist season killer.”
Commercial fishermen also have been hit hard. Oyster reefs are particularly vulnerable to salinity changes, and these areas already were dealing with the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the BP oil spill in 2010, and other freshwater dumps by the Bonnet Carre Spillway after other storms. Fishermen fear this year’s record flood could wipe out Mississippi oysters for good.
The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources reports that 90 to 100% of the state’s oyster reefs are dead. The reefs will take years to rebuild ― and that’s assuming the river water flooding stops, experts say. Mississippi residents say when they go out for oysters in local restaurants, the oysters come from Washington state, a shock when they consider Mississippi was home to one of the world’s most productive oyster fisheries just 15 to 20 years ago.
Mississippi shrimp, crab and finfish catches are all down this year, according to state officials. Fishermen say the ocean is just as deserted as the beaches, as many boat captains want to avoid burning fuel while getting nothing in return. Some described spotting dead sea turtles lined up on the barrier islands and running through unusual masses of dead fish and hyacinth grass floating in the water.
“I’ve never seen this before,” said Tommy O’Brien, a fisherman from Pascagoula, Mississippi. A recent nine-day trip brought in a red snapper catch worth less than $8,000, he said, which is a quarter of what he usually gets.
“When the blue-green algae die, there will be another fish kill,” he said. “The in-shore fish could take years to recover.”
Ryan Bradley, executive director of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, said it’s a “dire situation” in the Gulf. After several decades of disasters, this one may be the worst because no one knows when the algal bloom will end, he said.
Bradley, a fifth-generation fisherman, worries the industry may be doomed by state actions. He said many people stopped buying seafood from state waters after the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality warned against eating seafood from areas with algal blooms.
“That really put a damper on our seafood sales,” Bradley said, noting that state testing has yet to find dangerous levels of algae in any actual seafood. “These fishermen and communities really need direct emergency assistance. If we don’t take care of people now, they won’t be around forever. It’s a direct threat to our food security.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) and federal officials have backed an emergency federal fisheries disaster declaration to compensate fishermen and other businesses. But Bradley said it could take years for the money to get to them since some fishermen never got compensated after the BP disaster and flooding nearly a decade ago. Bradley blames an ineffective bureaucracy that ignores people who need help the most. “The process is broke.”
As fishermen battle the new stigma of algal blooms, scientists in the Gulf are tracking another ongoing ocean disaster: annual ”dead zones,” or vast areas of oxygen-depleted water, that plague the Gulf each year. The zones are toxic to marine life and blossom in Gulf waters each summer as nutrients and fertilizers pour down the Mississippi River.
Louisiana State University research professor Nancy Rabalais leads annual trips to measure the offshore areas of low oxygen, which was expected to reach a record size this year. But then July’s Hurricane Barry stirred up the Gulf waters and improved oxygen levels. When Rabalais and her team measured the Gulf in July, they found this year’s dead zone was nearly 7,000 square-miles, which made it the 8th biggest ― although she suspects it may be larger now in the calm, still warmer-than-normal temperatures of the Gulf.
Scientists have been trying to get farmers and communities across the Midwest to change practices and avoid dumping massive amounts of fish-killing nutrients into the Mississippi. Rabalais says as the climate warms and areas like the Midwest experience more rainfall, the dead zones will only get worse.
Meanwhile, tracking it is getting harder, as Rabalais says her research budget has been slashed to a third of what it used to be. “I can’t speak without data,” she said, “but more rainfall means more water is poured into the Gulf with lots of nutrients.”
Although the dead zone is different from the blue-green algae disaster, scientists say elevated levels of polluted Mississippi River water entering the Gulf seem to be the cause in both cases. That has many experts worried about the impact of new algal blooms on marine life, which has suffered huge losses this summer due to the tidal wave of polluted river water that invaded the environment.
It’s unclear if the algal blooms have played a role in the deaths of 300 dolphins found along the northern Gulf coast this year, including at least 143 in Mississippi alone. Experts say these numbers are a fraction of the dolphins that have likely died, and a federal investigation of marine mammal deaths is ongoing.
Moby Solangi, president and executive director of the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, says the algal bloom is an indication the marine environment is unhealthy. The worst outcome, he said, would be if toxic organisms like algae actually evolve into something more persistent and constant ― a nightmare situation for the marine species that live there and the people who depend on them.
If it’s true that toxic algae are adapting to marine environments, that’s bad news for the Mississippi tourist industry and for its fisheries, and something Solangi says scientists are investigating.
“There are multiple factors at work here,” Solangi said. “You’ve got polluted river water being poured into an area that’s not used to it, and organisms are feeling the pain. … It’s like an aquatic hurricane.”
Scientists say anything is possible in a rapidly warming aquatic world. Dr. Brian Lapointe, a research professor at the Florida Atlantic University and expert on algal blooms, said it would be disastrous if these blooms become more common.
“It could be the new normal, and it will impact fisheries and the economy if it continues,” Lapointe said. “It would be a tourist season killer.”
Repeated calls and emails last week to top Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality officials, including its executive director, Gary Ricard, and communications director, Robbie Wilbur, went unanswered. Rick Burris, deputy director of marine fisheries at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said his agency is not sure what threat blue algae poses to marine life, but he says so far agency officials have not detected dangerous levels of algae in seafood.
But Burris said what they are seeing is unusual. “The salinity levels are almost back to normal, but we’re not seeing the algal bloom recede as expected,” said Burris. “We are in unchartered territory.”
Meanwhile, residents and businesses along the Mississippi coast are fed up with state officials who seem to have few weapons to fight the algal bloom. At a community meeting of about 200 residents last week in Gulfport, there were a lot of questions but few answers, according to people who attended.
“How can you be mad at something you don’t know,” said Waveland resident Janet Densmore, who lives a few hundred yards from shore and has walked empty beaches this summer wondering what’s in the water. “They’re just trying to keep a lid on it and hope they don’t get blamed by the voters.”