Louisiana's Pearl River Fish Will Take Years To Rebound

Experts say the Pearl River's fish population will need three to five years to recuperate, and some species -- including certain mussels -- may not fully return.
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This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Nov. 14, 2011 edition.

Temple-Inland Inc., a maker of corrugated packaging and building products, recently agreed to a settlement with Louisiana's Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries after a "black-liquor" discharge by the company's Bogalusa paper mill resulted in a big fish kill in August. More than 430,000 freshwater mussels and 160,000 fish died in a stretch of the lower Pearl River that is part of the border between Louisiana and Mississippi. Black liquor is created when wood is converted to pulp.

Experts say the river's fish population will need three to five years to recuperate, and some species--including certain mussels--may not fully return.

In early November, Temple-Inland agreed to pay the state $760,246, including $408,011 for Louisiana's portion of the fish kill, along with $44,000 for kill-response expenses, $88,000 for the state's three-year monitoring and recovery plan for the river, and $220,400 for fish restocking. Mississippi is responsible for collecting $408,011 for its half of the kill.

International Paper in Memphis, Tenn. said it would acquire Temple-Inland two months ago, but has not started operating the plant yet.

When asked how many years it might take for the river's fish and mussel populations to recover, LDWF director of inland fisheries Mike Wood said "we estimate a three-year time frame. During that period, we'll stock some sport-fish species--largemouth bass, bluegill and catfish--but we're depending on the surviving adult fish of the remaining species to reestablish their respective populations."

Early this month, LDWF fisheries biologists stocked 27,000 catfish and 24,000 bluegill at points along the Pearl. Stepped-up sampling of fish and mussels by state biologists since the kill will continue for at least three years, Wood said.

At LSU AgCenter, Dr. Allen Rutherford, director of the Renewable Natural Resources School, said "based on our experience with fish kills in the Atchafalaya Basin after Hurricane Andrew, populations recovered fairly quickly. As long as there are no residual toxins, which I wouldn't anticipate, the Pearl River's fish populations should return to pre-spill levels within 3 to 5 years."

He said surveys conducted after the Bogalusa spill showed that most mussels closed their shells when the plant's pulp discharge passed them in the water, and as a result suffered little mortality. But one mussels species, the Fragile Papershell, couldn't close itself, with deadly consequences.

Rutherford said that benthic invertebrates, which are critical food for fish, were impacted by the spill. Benthic invertebrates include aquatic insects--dragonfly larvae, beetle larvae, dobsonfly larvae and mosquitoes--along with worms, leeches and snails. He said fish populations will have trouble recovering if there's little to eat.

In 1992, 187 million shad, bream, bass, paddlefish, catfish, fresh water drum and other fish died in a low-oxygen event associated with Hurricane Andrew in Loiusiana's Atchafalaya Basin. Another huge kill occurred there after Hurricane Gustav in 2008. Storms churn up organic matter that robs water of oxygen.

Chris Macaluso, coastal outreach coordinator at the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, said "three years for recovery of the Pearl's fish population sounds reasonable. We've had fish kills elsewhere, stemming from oxygen being sucked out of the water--which is what occurred in the Pearl." Temple-Inland's black liquor discharge reduced the amount of oxygen in the river.

In response to the Pearl River incident, "water was released in August from the dam on the Ross Barnett reservoir north of Jackson, Miss. to flush out the lower Pearl and improve water quality," Macaluso said. "That was a saving grace."

He said "based on past kills, fish will eventually return and ecosystems will recover. But I don't know if it will be 100 percent in the Pearl 's case." The Pearl can recover if steps are taken to prevent accidents, stocking is adequate and fishermen conserve fish resources, he said. The Pearl's not very heavily fished so that may help.

Macaluso continued, saying, "probably the worst part of the Pearl River kill is that old Gulf sturgeon were lost, and so few of those animals are left. Rare mussels and clams that had lived in the waterway for a long time may not come back." Before the spill, the river was habitat to several dozen mussel species, including a threatened species called the inflated heelsplitter.

The Pearl River kill of 160,000 fish involved 26 species, and included 139 paddlefish, which are a protected species in Louisiana, along with 26 Gulf sturgeon--a federal endangered species. More than two dozen juvenile sturgeon and at least one large, mature adult sturgeon were lost. But most of the sturgeons' breeding population was not in the Pearl at the time of the spill, according to the LDWF.

The LDWF used American Fisheries Society values, adjusted by the Consumer Price Index, for its kill accounting. Kill restitution values for Gulf sturgeon and paddlefish in the Pearl were set at $2,762 per fish, and were charged to Temple-Inland.

In lessons from Hurricane Andrew's kill, Macaluso said "for game fish like bass, starting three years after Andrew the recovery was 100 percent or more in the Atchafalaya. After that, there were two, very good flood years in the Mississippi Basin which allowed a flush of oxygen-rich water to bring water quality back." Tremendous crawfish crops gave the fish that returned plenty to eat. "And with the water so high, fish spread out into the swamp to spawn," he said. But, he noted, a decimating kill occurred when Gustav struck.

Nonetheless, restocking and efforts to control fishing helped the Atchafalaya, Macaluso said. "Bass anglers from across South Louisiana worked very hard to bring in fish from private ponds and lakes and other waterways, and Wildlife and Fisheries aggressively stocked bass and other gamefish."

He said "the potential's there for the same things to happen in the Pearl, though it's a different ecosystem that floods differently, has different habitat and it may not have the same carrying capacity and forage availability. If good flood years occur on the Pearl, spreading water into the swamps and bringing in beneficial nutrients and better water, and with restocking and conservation efforts, it should recover."

As for the Bogalusa plant, the state Dept. of Environmental Quality is taking no chances. DEQ spokesman Rodney Mallett said "after responding to the massive fish kill and reviewing what caused it, DEQ wanted a discharge plan that would ensure an accident like this doesn't happen again." The Temple-Inland plant was told to upgrade equipment and change procedures, and the state's monitoring of the facility has increased, he said.

Because of Temple-Inland's excessive black-liquor discharge over several days in August, DEQ demanded that the company install equipment to improve collection and reprocessing of waste streams. The agency hand-delivered an amended compliance order to Temple-Inland on Oct. 25, requiring construction of an ash-dewatering system by next July and spill-collection facilities by next September and October--all of which will add to operating costs.

Meanwhile, people living near the Pearl River hope that International Paper, which says it intends to continue running the Bogalusa plant, will be a better environmental steward than Temple-Inland was. Mill officials were told by DEQ to start meeting monthly with residents of local parishes to discuss any concerns about plant operations. -end-

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