The Gulf's Ocean and Inland Fish Face Multiple Threats

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Sept. 19, 2011 edition.)

If it weren't for bad luck, fish in and near the Gulf might have no luck at all. Decades of commercial overfishing, along with oil and gas exploration and refining, hurricanes and last year's BP spill are among those misfortunes. Consumers are left with plenty of considerations -- like the water their dinner was pulled from, whether to eat scarce varieties and the need for coastal protection.

Pollution has been a worry in southeast Louisiana since an excessive waste-water discharge on Aug. 9 by the Temple-Inland Inc. paper mill in Bogalusa. In an ensuing kill in the Pearl River, members of over 26 species of freshwater fish died, according to the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Last week, Mike Wood, director of inland fisheries for the LDWF, discussed the incident's toll on Gulf sturgeon, which were already threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. "We lost 25 juvenile sturgeon that were 3 feet long and at least one large, mature adult sturgeon," he said. But because the spill mainly affected the quality of water flowing down river, LDWF doesn't expect long-term impacts to the sturgeon's river habitat.

"Fortunately, most of the sturgeons' breeding population was not in the Pearl River at the time of the spill," Wood said. Gulf sturgeon live in the ocean but head into rivers in the spring and summer to spawn.

"Of the several dozen, mussel species in the Pearl River, only one -- the fragile papershell -- was significantly affected by the Bogalusa spill," Wood said. Papershells were found floating on top of the water dead. Other species of mussels, including the endangered heel splitter, used their shells for protection, and don't appear to have been affected, Wood said.

"If we had been given immediate notice of the incident, we could have taken a closer look at small fish like topminnows," Wood said. "But a reporting delay prevented documentation of many small fish that were killed. And their size allowed for rapid decomposition."

Fisheries biologists with LDWF collected samples from Aug. 13 to 20 along the Pearl River and at its mouth in Lake Borgne. La. Dept of Health and Hospitals collected oyster samples from areas near the river's mouth. Samples were sent to the private, Eurofins Central Analytical Laboratory in Metairie, La. 

Wood said "the Bogalusa plant discharge was mostly confined to the channel of the Pearl River. Once contaminated water entered the mouth of the river at Lake Borgne, it dispersed and became less and less concentrated."

He said "we're working on a report addressing what happened to Pearl River fish last month. It's a coordinated effort that includes state agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi, Louisiana State University and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," and should be released in late September.

Centuries ago, the Choctaw and Acolapissas Indians ate Pearl River mussels and used their pearls and shells for jewelry and other items. That explains the river's name. These days, people eat the waterway's catfish, bream and bass, but not its mussels.

In mid-September, Louisiana authorities said that the Pearl River is now safe for fish and shellfish consumption based on sampling, and is also safe for swimming. Likewise, the Mississippi Dept. of Environmental Quality lifted a fish consumption and water contact advisory for a section in Pearl River County.

In a separate concern, the feds are taking a look at the Gulf's now-scarce, saltmarsh topminnow. Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate with conservation group WildEarth Guardians in Denver, Colo., said "in the 1950's, the saltmarsh topminnow's range extended over most of the Gulf Coast, from the Escambia River near Pensacola, Fla. to Galveston, Texas. Today, that range is spotty, with a large gap between Galveston Bay and southeastern Louisiana." Topminnows that remain are found mainly in the region's brackish water in cordgrass marsh.

On Aug. 10, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started a 12-month review to decide whether saltmarsh topminnows should be designated as threatened or endangered, in response to a 2010 petition from WildEarth Guardians. In a Federal Register announcement, NMFS and FWS in early August sought scientific data on the minnow.

Jones pointed to degradation of Gulf wetlands, especially cordgrass marsh, as hurting minnows. FWS found other threats -- levee and canal construction; oil exploration and refining and their consequences, including the 2010 BP spill; the dockside gaming or gambling industry; rising sea water; inadequate regulatory protection and human population growth.

Jones said one of the advantages to protecting topminnow habitat now is that marsh building offers protection against storms for people living further inland.

When asked about Gulf fish habitats since the spill, BP's Gulf Coast Restoration Organization office in New Orleans last week declined to comment.

Last week, while angling for redfish off the coast of Venice, La., New Orleans charter captain Gregg Arnold said he'd heard that Gulf sturgeon as old as he is had been lost in the Pearl River spill. He and buddy Hal Chittum, a St. Augustine, Fla. fishing-boat builder and former fishing guide, said that because of commercial greed, bluefin tuna, blue marlin, white marlin, swordfish and sturgeon have been in trouble for sometime. Chittum said pollution and other threats to habitat had reduced tarpon numbers.

Bluefin tuna is a "species of concern" and white marlin is a "former species of concern," according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Species of concern are those that NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is watching but doesn't have enough data on to list under the Endangered Species Act.

Bluefin tuna is so heavily overfished in the Gulf and in such demand that it sells for hundreds of dollars a pound, Chittum said. "They're rushed by jet from the U.S. to Japan, where buyers will pay $25,000 to $40,000 per tuna, depending on weight and condition," he noted. In early January, one bluefin tuna weighing 754 pounds sold for $396,700 in Tokyo's fish market." Japan consumes about a fourth of the world's tuna.

Chittum continued, saying "Japanese companies, worried about the bluefin tuna's possible extinction, have supplies of frozen, whole tunas to sell later at exorbitant prices." After last spring's tsunami disrupted Japan's commercial activities, some of that frozen stockpile was in fact sold for food.

You might wonder how the BP spill affected bluefin tuna. Joseph Powers, LSU Oceanography and Coastal Sciences professor, said "as of now we don't know. Bluefin tuna electronically tagged near the Deepwater Horizon site during the spill migrated north to New England and Canada, so they have obviously survived." The population will be monitored over the next few years to assess any impact from the spill.

And despite worries about scarcity, NOAA said in May of this year that Atlantic bluefin tuna don't warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, but said it will reconsider the situation again.

Meanwhile, eateries across the U.S. are serving threatened Gulf fish, Arnold said. "Restaurants should be prohibited from buying fish caught in gill nets or long lines until those species, including redfish, all bill fish and tarpon, are in abundant supply," he said. Gill nets allow fish to enter, but not leave because their gills are bigger than the holes. And long-line fishing uses a main line, with baited hooks attached.