BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. - More than a dozen beaches in Mississippi’s Gulf Coast have been closed ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend after the formation of a toxic algae bloom on the shoreline.
On Wednesday the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality issued three beach closures - increasing the total number of closures to 19 after 16 beaches were closed between late June and early July. The closures came after department officials discovered a rapid growth of algae on the surface of the water.
The state agency said in a press release that people would be allowed onto the sand, but warned against making contact with the water on the beaches.
“The algae could cause rashes, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting,” the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality said in a press release. “Those exposed [should] wash with soap and water.”
MDEQ officials have also warned people to avoid eating seafood from affected areas.
On the Harbor in Pass Christian, Miss., Sonny Schindler, owner and guide for Shore Thing Fishing Charters, said concerns about eating the seafood came up often with groups of customers he takes out to fish on the Gulf Coast.
“It’s a common question; is it safe? Should we cancel our reservations?” Schindler said as he explained some of his customers' concerns. “We just try to explain to them that the areas affected are near the beaches -- very close to land. The areas we fish are very far to the south.”
Schindler, who earns anywhere between $400 to $700 when he takes groups out fishing, said the toxic algae bloom hadn’t lost him any business, but it had forced him to work harder and longer days to hold onto his customer base. Instead of fishing near the coast, he’s heading further south to unaffected areas to ease the minds of his customers.
“This has been the toughest stuff we’ve ever fished in,” Schindler said. “We’ve had to change everything to adjust to this freshwater and now the near-shore algae blooms.”
The murky blue-green algae has been able to thrive because of the seasonably warm water, and its low salinity due to the large amount of freshwater that’s been diverted from the Mississippi River into the Gulf because of flooding.
The toxic algae blooms have also been seen along Florida’s Panhandle. It’s been such a problem in Southwest Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis formed the “Blue-green Algae Task Force” to try to tackle the issue.
The toxic algae blooms had been on the minds of some tourists visiting Bay St. Louis, Miss. through the 4th of July holiday weekend, particularly eating the seafood that generates hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in the state annually.
“It does worry me a little bit, I have to admit,” said Kendra Hubbell who was in town from Seattle with her husband. “I don’t want to get sick on my vacation.”
Kendra’s husband, Daniel, wasn’t as concerned because he had faith in the local restaurants and commercial fishermen to spot and toss anything that didn’t look consumable.
“It’s in their best interests to make sure we’ve got the best food possible,” Daniel Hubbell said. "I have faith. I had shrimp last night because that’s what you do when you come down here and I’ll probably do the same tonight.”
Joe Spraggins, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said the state had sent seafood samples to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be tested and there was no cause for concern as people celebrate this 4th of July holiday weekend.
“The water quality doesn’t reach anywhere to the point that would cause us to be alarmed about seafood,” Spraggins said.
Schindler is hoping the toxic algae hasn’t done enough to damage people’s perceptions of Mississippi’s seafood industry, which stretches much further than the fishermen.
“I don’t want it to hurt the families that depend on the tourists,” he said.