NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana's governor says floodwaters from the Midwest are severely hurting people who make their living from coastal seafood, so he's asking the federal government to declare a fisheries disaster for the state.
Floodwaters rushing from the Bonnet Carré Spillway north of New Orleans have killed oysters, hurt fish catches and damaged livelihoods, Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
The fresh water has driven crabs, shrimp and fish out of bays and marshes and into saltier water where they can survive. But oysters are stuck — glued to the bottom.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, we are 9-and-a-half destroyed," said Brad Robin, whose family controls about 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of oyster leases in Louisiana waters.
The full impact won't be known for some time because the spillway, which protects New Orleans' levees by directing huge amounts of Mississippi River water into usually brackish Lake Pontchartrain, remains open, Edwards said in a letter sent Thursday and released Monday.
If a long-range forecast of little rain holds up, spillway closing might begin in about four weeks, Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Matt Roe said Monday.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant asked Ross on May 31 for a fisheries disaster declaration, which would make federal grants, loans and other aid available to affected people. It would open the way for Congress to appropriate money to help fishermen and businesses that rely on them.
For instance, $200 million was provided last June to help fishing communities recover from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.
Commercial fishing isn't the only thing in trouble, Edwards said, because statewide landings of speckled seatrout and redfish are down.
"Such low catches invariably lead to heavy economic impacts to those businesses that support the recreational fishing industry such as marinas and bait shops," he wrote.
Louisiana's oyster harvest is 80% below average for this time of year and more oysters are expected to die as temperatures rise, according to a preliminary report on the department's website. Shrimp landings were down 63% and blue crab landings down 45% in April from the five-year average. There's been a drop in the fish catch, but it hasn't reached the statewide average of 35% needed for a federal fisheries disaster declaration, the report says.
"We've been dealing with the river since October," said Acy J. Cooper Jr., president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association "That's a long time it's been high."
The die-offs are as bad in Mississippi. Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said fresh water has killed 80% or more of the state's oysters. He said crabs are down about 40% and brown shrimp landings are down more than 70% from a five-year average.
Marine animals require certain amounts of salt in the water around them. Oysters can tolerate a wide range of salinity, but a long spell of fresh water coupled with high temperatures can be lethal. Shrimp, crabs and fish simply swim to saltier areas.
Shrimp are now in places only larger boats can reach, Cooper said.
"Some of the big ones are catching a few," he said. "The smaller boats are just catching hell."
In addition, nutrients in river water nourish algae blooms so intense that their decomposition on the sea floor consumes oxygen, creating a dead zone every summer for thousands of square miles off the coast. This year's floods could bring a near-record dead zone, scientists have said.
The Mississippi River watershed drains 41% of the continental United States, and the middle of North America has had an awfully wet year.
The prolonged flooding has raised the Mississippi so high for so long that for the first time ever, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré (pronounced "Bonnie Carrie") twice this year, displacing Lake Pontchartrain's usually brackish water and flushing out much of the Mississippi Sound. The water is also high to the west, where the Atchafalaya River distributes Mississippi River water through Cajun Country swamps.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said Friday that they're investigating whether the floodwater and lingering effects of the BP oil spill contributed to the deaths of at least 279 bottlenose dolphins from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle, triple the usual number for this time of year.
The high water may last "well through the summer," Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Assistant Secretary Patrick Banks said Thursday.
"The difficulty is," he said, "when will this even be over?"
Video reporter Stacey Plaisance contributed from Baton Rouge.