A Flood of Catastrophe:
How a warming climate and the Bonnet Carré Spillway threaten the survival of Coast fishermen
By Alex Rozier | April 29,2020
This series is part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines. This story is part one of three.
PASS CHRISTIAN — On a warm, sunny September morning, bait salesman Roscoe Liebig scanned the harbor’s vacant piers and shook his head in disgust. Liebig recalled his usual surroundings: a full parking lot, a line of fishermen hooking their bait, and oysters peeking out in a low tide. That day, all of it was gone.
In a typical year, he’d be outside peddling his shrimp and croakers, a type of bait fish, to fishermen passing by.
“This is catastrophic,” he said. Referencing another historic disaster, Liebig put 2019 in perspective: “BP could blow up a well and you’d do better than this. It’s a dying freaking industry, and this is just the icing on the cake.”
Inside “Roscoe’s Live Bait Works,” sitting on a barge in the Mississippi Sound, Liebig grows restless as he reviews his finances. Sales are down sharply from the previous year, and he worries that making even a small repair or upgrade to his boat could break the bank.
At the core of his stress is the recent openings of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, an increasingly frequent event that rattles the sound’s water quality and kills aquatic species that fishermen depend on for survival.
The plight of Mississippi’s fishermen stems from a national phenomenon: how climate change is affecting America’s mightiest river.
The Mississippi River basin covers 40 percent of the continental U.S., stretches from Montana to New York and funnels water into the Gulf of Mexico, picking up nutrients from farms and other pollutants along the way.
The 12 months between July 2018 and June 2019 were the wettest ever for the U.S., the third time that record was broken just in 2019. To relieve pressure in the river and stave off flooding around New Orleans, last May the U.S Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway in Louisiana for an unprecedented third time in two years.
The spillway, located just south of Lake Pontchartrain, diverts water from the river into the Mississippi Sound. Last year, 1.35 trillion cubic feet of water — the equivalent of 15 million Olympic-size swimming pools — flowed through for 123 days, almost twice as long as any previous opening. The influx of freshwater caused a drastic shift in the sound’s salinity, devastating resident species: the oysters, immobile, perished almost entirely, and the shrimp and crabs either died or swam to habitable waters farther away.
To top it off, nutrients from the water fed a blooming blue-green algae. Fearing illnesses, officials closed the coast’s beaches, and news coverage of the phenomenon turned customers off from local seafood, according to the state marine resources director.
The result was devastation for fishermen and seafood markets that rely on their catches.
Liebig got into shrimping about 15 years ago, and, unlike most in the business, is the only fisherman in his family. Eventually, he opened his own bait shop when market shifts made full-time shrimping impractical.
Usually his 25-cent croakers are the cheapest around, Liebig said. But when supply plummeted and he had to find croakers elsewhere — a four-hour boat ride each way — his monthly fuel spending increased by $1,000 and he was forced to double his prices. For that May, the beginning of shrimp season, he estimates that his year-over-year earnings sank by 80 percent.
“We pretty much make our living in May, June, July and August,” he said in an interview last fall. “You got four months to make it, and the rest of the months you scrap by with a little bit of money. I’ll start back again next year. I’m stubborn.”
For fishermen, stubbornness is necessary for survival.
“You have a good year then a bad year, good year, bad year,” as Carey Cannette, a Biloxi shrimper, described it. “It’s one of those things you can’t quit. You’re so invested in it, you put so much time and energy in it you don’t want to give up.”
But many wonder how much longer their businesses can survive. Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought the nation’s economy to a screeching halt, last year’s spillway openings followed a string of disasters — notably Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 — that only allowed for brief windows of recovery.
These disruptions have a clear connection: a changing climate that’s bringing more rain, storms and flooding. While the connections between climate change, intense weather events and fossil fuels are well-documented, the spillway openings offer a rare glimpse into the relationship between climate, federal policy decision-making and their impacts on local communities.
The Bonnet Carré Spillway, completed in 1931, was opened just eight times in its first 70 years after its construction. By comparison, in the past 12 years, high water volume in the Mississippi River has triggered seven openings, including four times in the last three years.
Several factors play into the increasing frequency of the spillway’s usage, but none are bigger contributors than increasing greenhouse gases and temperatures, argues one researcher.
Omar Abdul-Aziz, a West Virginia University civil and environmental engineering professor, has spent years studying the impact of climate change on flooding, including in the Upper Mississippi River basin.
Carbon causes the atmosphere to trap heat, making air thinner and more moisture absorbent. The result is more precipitation, including snow in the Upper Midwest. Combined with increased rainfalls, the result is historic volumes of water gushing into the Mississippi River. Along the Gulf Coast, warming ocean surface temperatures lead to more frequent hurricanes and algae blooms.
Abdul-Aziz estimates that climate change has reached a point in its arc where recent years can foreshadow the immediate feature.
“How often could a year like 2019 occur? If I wanted to answer conservatively, with some restraint, at least once in the next five years, if not more,” he said.
Deckhand Eldon Kruse, finishing his shift on Liebig’s barge, could barely keep his eyes open after working through the night. Despite logging over 80 hours a week, Kruse said he had to work out a payment plan with the bank to keep his home out of foreclosure.
At that point in September, he hadn’t yet made $7,000 over six months of work after making nearly four times that much in just four months the previous year.
“It definitely hurts – not just me but my family,” said Kruse, 36, who lives about 45 minutes away in Saucier with his wife and three children. “It got to a point I was staying on the boat just to save a little bit of gas money.”
Kruse, who works construction in the offseasons, is banking on relief funds from a federal fisheries disaster declaration arriving sooner than in 2011, the last time such a declaration was made.
The $11 million the federal government awarded Mississippi that year after similar damages from the spillway opening didn’t arrive until 2015. While the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, the agency in charge of the funds, hired fishermen with those funds, many felt they should have instead received direct payments.
Congress appropriated $165 million for fishery disasters last year, to be split between seven states including Mississippi. State-resources director Joe Spraggins assured that money will arrive sooner than last time and that this time the agency will make direct payments to fishermen. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is still assessing how the money will be divided.
In the meantime, Mississippi’s secretary of state and the Mississippi Sound Coalition, a group of local businesses and political officials, have sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Mississippi River Commission in federal court over the spillway’s operation, which is tied to legislation written over 90 years ago.
“This is not only unlawful, it is inexcusable,” says the lawsuit from then-Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann of the spillway’s usage. “Such freshwater inundation will not only upset the delicate ecological balance of the (Mississippi) Sound, but will also inflict serious economic damage to the people and businesses that derive their livelihoods from the Sound.”
After the Great Flood of 1927, the U.S. authorized flood-control projects across the Mississippi River, including the Bonnet Carré. For the rest of the century, the spillway was seldom used, but Mississippi felt the impact each time, including in 1945 when the state received federal relief after losing most of its oyster population.
Robert Wiygul, an environmental attorney for the Mississippi Sound Coalition, said the federal government needs to change its approach to the spillway because the river itself has changed over the years.
“Things have changed drastically since 1976,” the last time an environmental study of the spillway was conducted, Wiygul said. “We know the Mississippi River’s bed has raised, so the water gets higher at the same flow than it used to years ago. We’ve had more development upstream, you’ve had increased nutrient loads in the river, and you’ve had increased precipitation.”
Hosemann’s lawsuit requests the Corps to open the Morganza Spillway, which would send river water into southern Louisiana; but unlike the Bonnet Carré, opening the Morganza would flood hundreds of structures and thousands of acres of farmland.
“We’re dealing with 21st century issues with engineering from the 20th century,” said Read Hendon, associate director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. “It wasn’t engineered for the problems we’re having today. Once you open Morganza you’re looking at flooding homes, whereas here, we don’t like it, but you’re killing wildlife and affecting the coastal ecosystem. But it doesn’t have the direct human impact.”
On April 3, the Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré for a record-shattering fourth time in three years.
With springtime and another rainy season underway, it’s unclear how many more years like 2019 Mississippi’s Gulf Coast fisheries can take without changes to the spillway’s operations.
Take two of the Coast’s largest seafood companies, for example. Kendall Marquar, owner of Waveland-based Pinchers, the state’s largest crab processor, said his yearly earnings were about a third of what he makes in a good year.
“This winter’s probably going to be the worst we’ve ever seen on crabs,” he said last fall.
At Crystal Seas Oysters, the state’s largest oyster processor, manager Jennifer Jenkins said their total business fell 55 percent from 2018.
“I don’t want to flood New Orleans,” she said. “But right now, the oyster industry is… I’ve never seen it worse. Not after Katrina, not after any oil spill. If you put them all together, I don’t think it’d be worse than it is right now.”
Despite this century’s hardships, fishermen who have taken after generations of family in the trade find it hard to see themselves doing anything else.
Mark Kopszywa, a fourth-generation fisherman from Ocean Springs, got his start at age 4 making toy boats and earning a penny a piece mending needles for shrimping nets. A descendant of Polish immigrants, Kopszywa dropped out of high school at 15 to shrimp full time and now quips that after 30 years in the business he doesn’t know any better.
“Once you’ve done it as long as we’ve done it, it’s hard to do anything else,” he explained. “We know that there’s a possibility that if I go out next week I can hit a lick. I can make more in that one lick than I made or you made in two months. But these licks are getting farther and farther apart.”
In the meantime, Kopszywa, like so many others in the business, has been forced to adapt.
After ending 2019 with the lightest haul of his career, Kopszywa fixes other shrimpers’ nets to get by, a skill he said isn’t common these days. While most years he averages between 50,000-60,000 pounds of shrimp, he finished last season with a mere 15,000 pounds.
Unable to afford reliable deckhands, he operates his 60-foot, double-rigged shrimp boat by himself. Despite the financial stress and an assortment of injuries collected over the years — two missing toes, crab bites and a staph infection to name some — Kopszywa basks in the freedom of working for himself.
Kopszywa, 48, was named 2019’s ‘Shrimp King,’ a title given to a different representative of the Coast’s seafood industry each year since 1948. Each Shrimp King’s name is inscribed on a monument in front of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi.
Now, that monument is a token of his family’s legacy to share with his sons and the generations to come.
“No matter whatever happens in life now, their daddy’s name is going to be on that wall over there, so they always have a history in Biloxi because of it.”
As much as he would like to see his children follow tradition, he knows that it might be a fantasy.
“The industry’s just done got so hard. It’s hard to see a future,” he said.
Abdul-Aziz, the West Virginia professor, explained that greenhouse gas emissions already in the air will continue to warm the earth’s climate for decades due to their long half-lives. While mitigation like adopting renewable energy sources and building green spaces will help future generations, it won’t undo the damage.
“Whatever has happened, we can’t do much about it,” he said. “What countries are trying to do is simply not make the condition worse.”
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