Gulf Coast leaders form coalition to protect Mississippi Sound after devastating spillway openings

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Mississippi Department of Marine Resources

Birds in the Mississippi Sound.

GULFPORT — How can Mississippi restore its coastal waters to their health and stability of a hundred years ago?

Albeit a lofty goal, state officials, Gulf Coast mayors and supervisors gathered Wednesday morning at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport to organize and discuss checkpoints towards accomplishing that mission. The meeting marked the first full gathering of the newly formed Mississippi Sound Coalition.

“We have the Mississippi Sound doing now what it’s never done before in the last 15 years, and we’re losing production because of it,” said Paul Mickle, Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Marine Resources, at the meeting.

The marine life in the Mississippi Sound endured a tumultuous spring and summer this year due to freshwater from the Mississippi River flowing in at an unprecedented rate. Freshwater entered the Sound through the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a structure in Louisiana that releases water from the Mississippi River to prevent flooding in New Orleans. Never before had the spillway been opened in consecutive years, nor twice in one year; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the gates, broke both those records this year after a historic wet season across the river’s basin.

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Many of Mississippi’s oysters, shrimp and crabs died as a result of the lower salinity levels in the freshwater. Mickle explained that these species aren’t built to survive such drastic changes in their environment.

“We’ve lost production because of variability,” Mickle said. “In the summertime it actually becomes too salty. I’m talking about swings in water quality, from very salty to extremely fresh. It’s never happened so many (years) in a row, the water quality swinging so far back and forth. Our aquatic animals, they’ve never been selected for that type of environment.”

Paul Mickle, Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Marine Resources

The Mississippi Sound Coalition’s stated goal is to work with state and federal leaders “to cause national solutions, provide public education on the subject, and, if necessary, engage in litigation to restore the Mississippi Sound, recover damages for affected parties, and mandate national solutions.”

“I don’t need to tell everybody of the horrendous consequences, especially to Hancock County, in the Western Sound,” said organizer and former Biloxi Mayor Gerald Blessey, referring to both the ecological and economic damages. He emphasized the need to prepare for future Spillway openings: “Going forward, those kinds of things, if allowed unchecked, are going to continue.”

The group will include the mayors of Long Beach, Ocean Springs, Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Gulfport, Moss Point, Pascagoula, Pass Christian, D’Iberville, Diamondhead, Waveland and Gautier, as well as supervisors from Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.

While the Coalition made no major actions or announcements on Wednesday, the group discussed options such as diverting more of the Pearl River into the Sound to control salinity levels, as well as litigation involving the other states along the Mississippi River. The group is planning its next meeting for December, according to Blessey.