ENVIRONMENT

There's An Environmental Disaster Unfolding In The Gulf of Mexico

A slow-moving flood of polluted Mississippi River water is causing serious damage to Gulf species, and a major storm threatens to make it worse.

As fishermen deep in the Louisiana bayou, Kindra Arnesen and her family have faced their share of life-altering challenges in recent years. 

First came Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 monster storm that devastated her small fishing community in Plaquemines Parish before roaring up the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying $125 billion in property. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 40 miles offshore, spewing nearly 200 million gallons of crude. The fisheries have not fully recovered more than nine years later, nor has her family.

But this year may be worse. A historic slow-moving flood of polluted Mississippi River water loaded with chemicals, pesticides and human waste from 31 states and two Canadian provinces is draining straight into the marshes and bayous of the Gulf of Mexico — the nurseries of Arnesen’s fishing grounds — upsetting the delicate balance of salinity and destroying the fragile ecosystem in the process. As the Gulf waters warm this summer, algae feed on the freshwater brew, smothering oxygen-starved marine life. 

And as of Wednesday, an advancing storm looks likely to turn into a tropical storm or hurricane by the weekend, with the potential to bring torrential downpours and more freshwater flooding.

Dolphins have been dying in huge numbers across the Gulf Coast region — nearly 300 this year already.
Dolphins have been dying in huge numbers across the Gulf Coast region — nearly 300 this year already.

Fishermen and state government officials agree this long, hot summer may go down in history as one of the most destructive years for Gulf fisheries. The torrent of river water pushing into Gulf estuaries is decimating crab, oyster and shrimp populations. The brown shrimp catch this spring in Louisiana and Mississippi is already down by an estimated 80%, and oysters are completely wiped out in some of the most productive fishing grounds in the country, according to state and industry officials. The polluted freshwater has also triggered algae blooms, which have led to beach closures across Mississippi. 

“The Army Corps of Engineers says we had the most rainfall in 124 years,” said Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. “Shrimpers and crabbers are struggling. Oystermen are almost nonexistent. … It’s not going to get better soon.”

“I’ve had grown men call me on the phone and cry,” said Arnesen, who serves on the board of the Louisiana Shrimp Association and works on state coastal management issues. “This feels like the height of the BP oil spill.”

Mississippi and Louisiana have already started the process of requesting federal disaster assistance for damaged fisheries. But it will likely be a long while before any money reaches the fishermen whose nets are coming up empty. To officially apply for disaster relief, Louisiana state officials say they need more data, which will take months to compile. 

“We are seeing impacts across the coast in all sectors of the fishing communities,” said Patrick Banks, assistant secretary for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “We will continue to collect data to support a disaster declaration.” 

It’s not just fisheries that are suffering. Dolphins have been dying in huge numbers across the region — nearly 300 this year already, which is three times the number in a normal year, according to federal and state officials. Fishermen report finding dead dolphins floating in water near shore or beached in the marshes, covered in painful skin lesions that scientists have linked to freshwater exposure. One fisherman reported finding a mother dolphin pushing her dead baby along in the water. 

“Their skin looks like a Brillo pad,” said Louisiana charter boat captain George Ricks, who heads the Save Louisiana Coalition, a coastal management advocacy organization.

Ricks and many other fishermen blame the unprecedented deluge of freshwater pouring into the Gulf. The Bonnet Carre, a huge spillway that protects New Orleans, has already opened an unprecedented two times this year to divert surging Mississippi River water and is currently pouring more than 100,000 cubic feet per second into Lake Pontchartrain. Being able to close the spillway again depends on rainfall upriver.

The Army Corps of Engineers operates the spillway and says it has no choice but to keep it open to protect property upstream. The Corps argues that some of this flooding can be beneficial to the ecosystem. “The introduction of fresh water during leakage events simulates the natural cycle of overbank flooding and provides numerous ecosystem benefits to the aquatic and terrestrial resources in the spillway,” the agency notes on its website. 

But some marine biologists say the flood of freshwater can be catastrophic for species such as bottlenose dolphins, which are very territorial and are reluctant to leave their spawning grounds even when salinity levels become toxic. Endangered species like Kemp’s ridley turtles are also threatened by river water exposure, since they depend on rich Gulf marshlands to grow and develop. 

“We are experiencing a Cat 5 aquatic hurricane,” said Dr. Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi. Dolphins are particularly vulnerable to incursions of river water, he said. “Every time they open the Bonnet Carre spillway, we see a spike in deaths.” 

Solangi’s team recently found a stranded dolphin on a Gulfport beach, breathing slowly and covered in freshwater lesions. It died a short time later. 

“Dolphins are like the black box found on airplanes,” Solangi said. “They tell you what’s happening in the environment. When dolphins are doing well, the environment is doing well.”

Fishermen report finding some dead dolphins covered in painful skin lesions that scientists have linked to freshwater exposur
Fishermen report finding some dead dolphins covered in painful skin lesions that scientists have linked to freshwater exposure.

By all accounts, the Gulf marine environment is not well. Scientists predict the annual dead zone — a giant blob of polluted, deoxygenated water linked to algae blooms — will grow to the size of Massachusetts and suffocate even more marine life later in the Gulf this summer.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the bottlenose dolphin deaths an “Unusual Mortality Event” in February, and its investigation is ongoing. Officials say higher-than-normal dolphin strandings spiked in May, when there were 88 discovered along the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts. That’s nearly eight times the average monthly number of dolphin mortalities during the BP spill from 2010 to 2014.

Total dolphin strandings have not reached the levels seen at the height of the BP spill, and there were fewer in June. Dr. Teri Rowles, NOAA’s marine mammal health and stranding program coordinator, said that researchers know freshwater exposure could be contributing to the health concerns, but that it’s too early in their investigation to pinpoint an exact cause.

“We do see dolphins with freshwater lesions, but not all the animals have skin lesions,” said Rowles. 

Some dolphin populations have yet to recover from the BP oil spill, Rowles said, mainly due to reproductive problems. NOAA reports dolphins in heavily oiled areas are still suffering from chronic health problems and higher rates of failed pregnancies and mortalities.

But many fishermen who have worked in these areas for generations suspect something else is threatening their future: politics. As part of a plan to save Louisiana’s rapidly sinking coastline, state agencies want to pump in more sediment-heavy river water to help rebuild the disappearing land. Fishermen question the efficacy of freshwater diversions and worry about the dangers to fisheries and marine life posed by these projects. They question why NOAA would grant waivers to Louisiana last year to bypass the Marine Mammal Protection Act and allow the freshwater diversion construction to proceed.

Meanwhile, fishermen know a changing climate is not working in their favor. Scientists say the Mississippi River is expected to continue to flood in future years as the atmosphere heats up and produces stronger storms and more rainfall. Barry, the storm heading for the coast right now, is the latest to threaten the Gulf ecosystem, but certainly not the last. 

All of this worries Acy Cooper, a fourth-generation fisherman and president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association who is leading a delegation of fishermen to Washington this month to plead their case for disaster assistance. He blames the Army Corps for not adequately managing the river and controlling and dredging the river passes that empty into the Gulf, making the effects of freshwater worse. 

But his biggest worry is for his family and future generations. He comes from a long line of fishing families who have prospered and persevered in one of the most bountiful fisheries in the world, and he doesn’t want to be the last.

“My sons can’t make enough to feed their families,” he said. “What’s going to happen to them?” 

Arnesen worries about this as well. 

“If we keep operating like this, we’re going to kill the estuaries and the oceans, yet they still dismiss us,” she said. “Our fish feed America. That should matter to everyone.” 

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