Bulging Mississippi has Gulf fisheries on edge

Published on
May 12, 2011

One year removed from the catastrophic oil spill, the U.S. Gulf seafood industry could take another big hit this spring as the Mississippi River’s rising waters are diverted into the Gulf of Mexico to prevent the destruction of homes and businesses in big cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Officials have already opened 113 gates on Louisiana’s Bonnet Carre Spillway to avoid flooding. On Saturday, officials opened the Morganza Spillway for the first time in nearly four decades, as water sprayed 6 feet into the air. The water will flow 20 miles south into the Atchafalaya Basin, and from there it will roll on to the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City.

The influx of fresh water could significantly reduce salinity levels in Lake Ponchartrain and the bays and estuaries of the Mississippi Delta, killing oysters, shrimp, blue crab and finfish.

“Now, at a time when we need more production and more inventory, we are going to get hit pretty hard,” said Harlon Pearce, president of Harlon’s LA Fish & Seafood in Kenner, La., and chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board.

“If a minimal amount of gates are opened for a short period of time, there would be a minimal impact on marine resources. But, if additional gates are opened for long periods of time, it would have detrimental to catastrophic effects on marine resources,” said Joe Jewell, assistant director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources’ Office of Marine Fisheries.

Unfortunately, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has said that all 350 gates may have to be opened. If that much freshwater gets into the Mississippi Delta region, oysters and shrimp will be among the hardest hit species.

“The primary ones that would feel this very harshly would be oysters, because they cannot get out of the way. We could have a catastrophic killoff on the reefs,” said Jewell.

“The oyster beds could handle a few days of fresh water, but it may be a month. It is going to be a very weak summer for oysters,” added Pearce.

The flooding and influx of fresh water could not come at a worse time for the Gulf shrimp industry, said Jewell.

“This was going to be a bounce back year after the oil spill. Public perception is starting to turn around. And, the season is just now about to open — the first or second week of June,” he said.

While the larger shrimp will swim out to sea way from the fresh water, the larval shrimp will likely die, said Jewell. White shrimp do not have much of a problem with fresh water, but brown shrimp do, added Pearce.

In addition, larval and small blue crabs and finfish will likely be destroyed by fresh water, but the adult crabs and finfish will swim out of the way, said Jewell.

The only upside for the Gulf seafood industry, according to Pearce, is that wild crawfish production should increase and the marshes will be cleansed. “The year after we have something like this, we have good production,” he said.

At 1.4 billion pounds, the Gulf region represented 18 percent of total U.S. seafood landings of 7.8 billion pounds in 2009, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Contributing Editor

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