By JACK WEATHERLY
It’s okay to eat seafood from the Mississippi Sound.
That statement to the Mississippi Business Journal by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is the first good news that the coastal counties have had this summer.
Another agency, the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), closed all 21 beaches, starting with some in late June to protect the public from blue-green alga that can cause rashes, vomiting and diarrhea.
“The seafood is safe to eat,” Joe Spraggins, executive director of the DMR, told the Journal on Tuesday.
And the beachside waters evidently are safe to use, though no one in official capacity has made that public pronouncement.
Spraggins said that the public simply must use common sense and avoid exposing themselves to the alga when fishing near-shore.
State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said in a prepared statement to the Journal on Tuesday that he “would imagine if there had been an outbreak we would have heard about it.”
The absence of an outbreak evidently is the result of the state agencies’ continuous testing and closing the beaches.
The algal bloom has been caused by an abundance of non-saline water dumped into the Gulf from the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which has been open since Feb. 27 to protect upstream land from flooding. The spillway is dumping water from the swollen Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain and then into the Gulf of Mexico.
The nonsaline water is also contaminated by fertilizer runoff from farming operation all along the national river.
Restaurants and dealers are providing safe seafood because it is “monitored and tested regularly,” Coastal Mississippi, which promotes tourism, said in a release.
The tourism industry in the three coastal counties — Hancock, Harrison and Jackson – amounted to $2 billion spent in 2017, the most recent year figures are available, or 32.2 percent of the tourism market of $6.4 billion for the whole state, according to Coastal Mississippi.
The Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association has received “mixed reports” from the coastal eateries, said Pat Fontaine, executive director. A lot of restaurants get their seafood from other states, Fontaine said.
The impact on beach vendors – such as jet skis, beach chairs and umbrellas – has been “severe,” Fontaine said.
Restaurants that specialize in seafood are reaching out beyond the Gulf Coast for their fish.
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House in Biloxi co-owner Tony Cvitanovich said, “It really hasn’t affected us that much.” The restaurant from Bayou La Batre in Alabama, tuna, red snapper and speckled trout from offshore and farm-raised redfish from Texas.
The ripple effects have been felt far from the coast.
Bob Crechale, owner of the venerable “Crechale’s Cafe” in Jackson whose weathered sign dating to 1956 features a leaping fish, says gets his flounder and scallops from the East Coast and his shrimp from Texas.
“It’s tough and it’s fixin’ to get real tough to get seafood from down there,” he said, referring to the approaching Hurricane Barry, which dumped a lot more rain on the coast and far inland.
In a prepared statement, Spraggins said: “Thus far, the water samples tested by MDMR and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have not shown toxin levels high enough to warrant concern for consumption of local seafood.
The DEQ beach closure extends only so far into the water, roughly waist deep, said Robbie Wilbur, spokesman for the agency.
The charter captains said that they do not fish that close to shore regardless.
The DEQ has advised the public not to consume seafood from the sound. Whether that position changes based on the Marine Resources findings was not clear as of Thursday.
And whether the DMR position leads to the lifting of the beach closures remains to be seen.
The statement from Spraggins elicited a noncommital response from Wilbur: “You’ll have to speak to Gen. Spraggins and DMR about this.”
Fishing along the barrier islands has not been disrupted, as their beaches remain open. They are under the authority of the National Park Service.
“Recreational and commercial fishing off-shore in Mississippi waters remains unaffected by the algal bloom and is safe for consumption,” Spraggins said.
Spraggins said that “we don’t have to worry about them eating oysters, because there’s not any” due to the nonsaline water killing them because they cannot move.
Shrimp numbers are down considerably, he said. The five-year average for the Mississippi shrimp harvest in June is 2 million pounds. This year, it’s about 500,000, Spraggins said.
The finding on seafood is good news for charter boats, whose business has been dramatically affected by the bacterial contamination.
Several charter operations interviewed for this article, are adamant that their livelihoods have been crippled by the publicity surrounding the freshwater contamination.
Sonny Schindler, who heads up the Shore Thing Charters out of Bay St. Louis, said that “we haven’t missed any work. We’ve just worked a lot harder. Every aspect of the business has changed.”
Schindler said the seven-boat operation has even turned to birding tours to supplement its business.
Mike Foto, owner of Fish Finder Charters out of Biloxi said that his business, which offers in-shore and deep-water service, during the summer is 25 percent of what it normally is.
Foto and other charter captains maintain that the downturn in their business is primarily because of widespread perception that doesn’t match reality.
But the reality is that the coast is suffering its worst economic calamity since the BP oil spill of 2010.
The company paid $750 million to the state, with 75 percent of it going to six coastal counties, for damages and loss of tax revenues.
Gov. Phil Bryant and the Mississippi congressional delegation has asked for federal disaster aid due to the fresh-water intrusion and its consequences.
The Army Corps of Engineers had been expected to start the shutdown of Bonnet Carre in mid-July, but Hurricane Barry’s soaking from the Gulf to far inland changed that outlook.
» Story Copyrighted by the Mississippi Business Journal
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