Mississippi Gulf Fisheries Weather Storms, Algae, and a Wave of Misinformation
"The main thing is we are going to be okay. We always bounce back."
Explore downtown Ocean Springs in Coastal Mississippi and you'll find renowned works from town legend Walter Inglis Anderson. He wrote, "In order to realize the beauty of humanity we must realize our relation to nature." This revered relationship narrowly escapes peril as the Bonnet Carré Spillway flushes the Mississippi Sound with freshwater to prevent flooding and the resulting bloom of blue-green algae affects the region's waters. Though with looming headlines suggesting the entire Mississippi Coast is closed for business, misguidance proves a bigger threat to the locale's food economy than the algae.
Captain Mike Moore of Biloxi Cruise Company teaches people about shrimping and also charters fishing trips. He says, "I haven't seen fresh water in three weeks." Reporting fresh-to-salt water ratios ranging 11 to 17 per 1000 parts, he explains this is perfectly normal. Regardless, his tour numbers have dropped more than 80 percent since the news broke.
At the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor, you'll find Vietnamese, Eastern European and Cajun fishermen selling the day's bounty. Moore says, "This is clearly a community effort by people who have lived here for generations from all nationalities. This is a community." He points to the morning's catch of 16 to 20 count shrimp, which normally sell for around $8 per pound, currently selling for $4.50 per pound. Colossals go for $5.50 per pound, and at well below the $10 to $12 per pound market value, small businesses remain perplexed.
Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) Executive Director, Joe Spraggins says that they are "continuing to test water and fish samples to ensure seafood safety in Mississippi waters." And, while the MDMR is advising fishermen to avoid catching seafood in waters where algae is present, he says "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. Recreational and commercial fishing off-shore in Mississippi waters remains unaffected by the algal bloom and is safe for consumption. The MDMR is committed to frequent sampling to ensure the safety for fresh locally-caught seafood."
Meanwhile, businesses like Moore's continue weathering this media storm. He says, "The main thing is we are going to be okay. We always bounce back."
Anita Arguelles of French Hermit Oysters knows first-hand what Moore is talking about. Near inception, her off-bottom oyster farm quickly garnered fans earlier. The farm took a tumble when the Spillway opened for the second time this year. "The temperatures rose and the low salinity factor caused them to die," Arguelles says. With an initial $23,000 personal investment, she's not about to shuck it all. "Thankfully we were still in our infancy, otherwise the loss would be total," she says. Even with an 84 percent mortality rate, Arguelles has not stopped. She's temporarily relocated her "seeds" to Alabama waters where she's "sitting tight and growing my babies out."
Arguelles is hopeful she'll have her next batch of oysters ready by fall. "Even though we've had a setback, the chefs really want to help. So, we have a different story now."
Chef and owner of Vestige and 2019 James Beard semi-finalist, Alex Perry, champions Arguelles's story, "No one wants to see this dead in the water. No one wants to see this fail. Everyone was super stoked to have these oysters. It was horrible timing that all of this came about." But Perry remains hopeful, "Resilience is our game."
During the interim, Perry says if he can't buy oysters from Arguelles, he'll buy all of her branded t-shirts to continue the momentum. Meanwhile, next month, Chef Perry partners with 2019 James Beard Best Chef of the South, Chef Vishwesh Bhatt for a special "Gulf to Plate" community supper at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art to encourage the protection of the Mississippi Gulf's bounty.
White Pillars is one of Biloxi's newest fine dining hots. Chef and owner Austin Sumrall also proudly sources from farmers like Arguelles and adds, "We don't serve anything that doesn't come out of the Gulf. We're still not going to." Sumrall is frustrated with the frenzy of misinformation, "It's not even true or factual. The backbone of Biloxi's economy is the shrimping industry. And, they're definitely hurting." As for French Hermit Oysters? "We try to find people who are passionate about what they are doing. We found that with them."
Like Perry, you'll see Sumrall sporting the French Hermit Oyster t-shirts these days.
Walter Inglis Anderson's notion that humans are part of nature resonates with this community's current dilemma. Yet as he wrote, "Bad things do happen. How I respond to them defines the quality of my life," it seems that the people of The Secret Coast took note.
With Hurricane Barry barreling down on the region, officials expect lots of rain which isn't great for the fresh-to-salt water ratio. However, it may also cause enough disturbance in the Gulf to push in welcomed saltwater. Because it's too soon to tell, Harrison County Emergency Manager Rupert Lacy tells local sources "It depends on how it churns in the washing machine."