Reefer Sadness

Scientists are expecting fresh water from the Mississippi River to arrive in areas off Hancock County by this weekend, bringing a temporary boon for fishermen that could fade quickly and be followed by the anticipated destruction of the multi-million dollar oyster industry in the Mississippi Sound.

After being inundated by fresh water, oysters that grow on reefs in the western Sound around the Bay of St. Louis and Pass Christian are not expected to survive. “In all likelihood, the oysters will die,” said Ed Cake, a biologist at Gulf Environmental Associates who specializes in shrimp and oysters.

The Army Corps of Engineers began draining water off the Mississippi River through the Bonnett Carre Spillway on May 9, sending millions of gallons of fresh water into Lake Pontchartrain. From there, the water is making its way eastward and will eventually escape through passes into Mississippi waters.

The river is being drained off to prevent flood damage around New Orleans. Other areas upriver have already experienced disastrous flooding.

Cake said Thursday that the fresh water will affect all sorts of salt water-dwelling marine life. Saltwater fish will swim out to stay ahead of the fresh water, as will shrimp, crabs, and other species. The fresh water is expected to impact Hancock County, as well as all of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, and could move as far eastward as the Gulfport ship channel, Cake said.

The benefit for local fishermen will come when speckled trout flee the fresh water in Lake Pontchartrain and head to areas off Bay St. Louis. Fishing here should be great, until the fresh water catches up and the fish head farther out, scientists say.

In the midst of that dilemma, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources announced this week that shrimp season in Mississippi territorial waters opens on May 25.

By driving them farther out in the Gulf, the spillway drainage is not expected to heavily affect fish, blue crab and shrimp. “They can avoid the problems with the fresh water,” Cake said. “But the oysters can’t move. They will last maybe a week.”

The oyster reefs will recover when things return to normal, Cake said. But, he added, “it will probably take two or three years” before another crop can be harvested.

BY: J.R. Welsh

The Sea Coast Echo

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