The Fourth of July weekend -- peak beach-time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast -- is just around the corner, but all of Hancock County's beaches, along with most of Harrison County's, are currently closed due to the lingering effects of a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB).
The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality began issuing closure advisories last weekend due to a rapid growth of blue-green algae on the surface of the water in the affected areas, which included all beach areas in Hancock County and Pass Christian, one in Long Beach and two in Gulfport. On Thursday, MDEQ extended the advisory to include Gulfport Harbor Beach, East Courthouse Road Beach and the Harrison Road area of the Jourdan River.
"MDEQ advises people, and their pets, to avoid water contact such as swimming or wading because exposure to the blue-green HAB can be harmful," according to an agency press release. "The closures refer to water contact and do not prohibit use of the sand portion of a beach.
"The algae can cause rashes, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. MDEQ advises that those exposed wash with soap and water and to not eat fish or any other seafood taken from affected areas."
The beach areas themselves are safe, as long as people stay out of the water, officials said.
While MDEQ officials said this week there is yet no specific data to to the HAB to the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway, they said the blue-green algae the Mississippi Sound is currently experiencing is usually found only in freshwater areas. Freshwater has been pouring into the Sound continuously since the Spillway opened May 10 to alleviate Mississippi River flooding.
The spillway, completed in 1931, is a 1.5-mile-long (2.4-kilometer-long) construction of 350 concrete bays and 7,000 huge timbers called needles. Its unusually early opening in February marked the 13th time it has been used overall, but only the second time it's been used in consecutive years. Earlier this year, 206 bays were opened, discharging 213,000 cubic feet (6,032 cubic meters) of water per second into the spillway.
The spillway opening has been directly tied to the mass deaths of several marine species in the Sound, including oysters, dolphins and sea turtles. A total of 130 dolphins and 156 sea turtles have been found dead along the Mississippi coastline so far this year, according to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies and Mississippi State University; and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources reported earlier this month the oyster mortality rate was higher than 90 percent for all reefs in the Sound except for Pass Marianne.
While many beaches in Harrison County have signs on the beaches discouraging people from swimming or wading, Hancock County does not, at least not yet.
"Over the last week, we have tried to communicate the best we can regarding our beach closures as a result of the algae blooms," Hancock Board of Supervisors Blaine LaFontaine said in a written statement. "These events with our water quality are a result of the unprecedented amount of freshwater intrusion in our body of water from the Bonnet Carré Spillway. The frequency of these events over the last several years and historic event that is occurring means we have to prepare and communicate to protect public health and safety. Hancock County Leadership is working to adopt a new flag system with appropriate signage and designated locations along our beaches in an attempt to be proactive regarding future closures or notifications. We do not know the long term effects from the Bonnet Carré Spillway on our Mississippi Sound, but hope our leaders will continue to fight for a long term solution."
Both MDEQ and MDMR are continuing to monitor the Sound and take water samples in order to advise the public.