Blue-green algae in Mississippi waters may prevent swimming, but leading tourism officials say there are other pleasures to be enjoyed along the coast.
“The beaches are not closed. The water is, but you can go to the beautiful beaches and have great activities on the beach,” Milton Segarra, CEO of Coastal Mississippi, a promotional organization for South Mississippi, told CNN affiliate WLOX.
Over the holiday weekend, hotel business held up despite the cautions against swimming, but “some of our partners, small businesses, are in a difficult situation because they depend specifically on the activities on the water,” said Segarra.
J.J. Pierotich, owner of Sharkshead souvenir shop in Biloxi, is among those who struggled. He had to cut shifts during the usually busy holiday weekend: “Our business has just tanked all of a sudden.” Sharkheads has weathered other storms, according to its website. The gift shop that began in 1977 as “a closed up gas station” was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then reopened in 2012.
Still Pierotich told WLOX that, if and when relief finally arrives in the form of lifted warnings, “summer will be over by then. There is no making it up.”
Joe Spraggins, executive director of Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, said that the daily water tests show microbacteria in the water. If the microbacteria contains toxins, “it could cause irritation of the skin. We do not know that as a fact – the toxin part,” Spraggins told CNN.
The latest test results will tell more about the blue-green algae that are considered Harmful Algal Blooms. HABs are “overgrowths of algae in water. Some produce dangerous toxins in fresh or marine water but even nontoxic blooms hurt the environment and local economies,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Mississippi is not alone in experiencing HABs, which can look like foam, scum, or mats on the surface of water and appear in different colors. HABs have been observed in large freshwater lakes, smaller inland lakes, rivers, reservoirs and marine coastal areas and estuaries in all 50 states, according to David G. Schmale III, Professor at Virginia Tech.
The coming tropical storm might impact the Missisippi HABs, though in which direction is “hard to say,” said Schmale.
The National Hurricane Center has ratcheted up the odds on a tropical storm developing later this week from the messy weather migrating across Florida’s panhandle and this could cause flooding in the Gulf Coast region. Flooding, in turn, might increase concentrations of the existing HABs, explained Schmale.
Nutrients from the soil that are swept into the Gulf by the rain can feed the algae causing the bloom to “reignite” or even start again. On the other hand, the same conditions can cause the algae to subside, he said: “We don’t know until it happens.”
Spraggins said the north winds could blow the algae out into the saltwater, where the increased salinity might “break it up. I guess the best thing I can tell you is we’re hoping it will benefit us, not hurt us.”
What caused the Mississippi HABs?
A combination of heavy rains and freshwater released by the Bonnet Carre Spillway – built to reduce stress on the levee system and prevent urban areas, including New Orleans, from flooding – lowered the level of salt in the Mississippi Sound and provided “ripe” conditions for algae to bloom, said Schmale.
The blue-green algae are “primitive,” photosynthetic organisms that can feed off the sun to make their own energy and release oxygen and possibly toxins in the process, he explained. “Just because the water may look safe, there could still be these toxins that persist [due to the HABs] in water systems.”
Contact with toxic algae can cause rashes, stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium advises anyone who comes in contact with water or wet sand near the bloom immediately wash the exposed body part with soap and water.
“Follow the warnings and stay out of the water,” said Schmale. “People should be paying attention to advisories. This is the most important thing.”
HABs can produce different types of toxins, some that affect the liver, others the brain, and these poisons can accumulate along the food chain. “Ultimately, the entire food web is impacted because these toxins are produced,” said Schmale.
As a result, food contaminated with HABs have caused a variety of illnesses, and, in the most severe cases, lead to paralysis and respiratory failure, according the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, said Schmale, “one of the big take-home messages is any food in the markets is safe to eat.” Mississippi agencies regulate the seafood industry, keeping track of where food is harvested and when, and have “tight control measures” in place, he said.
Spraggins confirmed that “the fishing is fine.” Daily testing “has not shown any effect on the fish at this point,” he said.
People can still safely enjoy Mississippi’s beaches, said Spraggins: “The beaches are not closed. We’re just being very cautious.”
CNN’s Michelle Lou contributed to this report.