Fight over restoration dollars in MS

Recently, restoration dollars from the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 (GOMESA) have been causing quite a stir in Mississippi – leading to the Department of Marine Resources operating without a budget for weeks. Thankfully, the warring factions have reached an uneasy compromise on that front, but this will likely continue to be a controversial issue in years to come.

GOMESA is a federal law that in part ensures that Gulf states and local governments get a portion of revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling off our coasts. These funds are meant to be used for coastal conservation, restoration, and hurricane protection.

While there are some major concerns about where GOMESA funding is going, we have also seen positive projects funded, including efforts to protect nesting birds and sea turtles, improve coastal water quality, and bolster oyster production and add cultch to oyster reefs in the Sound. 

In the 2019 plan, one new project allocated $1 million to Mississippi for spreading hard “cultch” material on coastal water-bottoms that larval oysters can then settle on. This material includes clean oyster shells, rock or crushed concrete dropped to the bottom from barges to make hard beds onto which drifting larval oysters can settle, attach as tiny oyster “spat” and eventually grow to maturity.  

Another project provided $3 million from GOMESA toward the planting of juvenile oysters attached to shell or rock on prepared bottoms or active reefs in coastal waters. The oysters will likely be grown from the spat stage in controlled conditions like aerated tanks before being moved. Bags of seed oysters settled on shell or rock can be transported offshore and placed on reefs on the bottom, or grown suspended in baskets or racks. Either way, this results in more young oysters getting a start in Mississippi waters.

Oyster reefs provide hard structure in coastal waters and marshes that otherwise have mud bottoms. Reefs attract marine life, starting with the smallest organisms in the food chain and moving on up to larger predatory fish that we like to catch. Oysters feed by filtering water for detritus and plankton and so improve water quality. They also stabilize shorelines and reduce erosion.

There are also real concerns that some of this money is going to politician’s pet projects rather than true conservation and restoration. For example, funding for the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport seems to be more of a poorly conceived economic development project than something that actively provides coastal restoration benefits. 

Another example is former Governor Bryant sidestepping a Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality design contest for new beach stormwater outfalls that would filter and clean the water. This involved a long process with multiple judges and stakeholders, but now the results of the design contest sit on the shelf while Governor Bryant’s preferred concrete stormwater outfalls that add no new filtration to stormwater moved forward as part of GOMESA.

Part of the reason GOMESA funding is getting so much scrutiny is that more money is coming in on an annual basis than ever before. From 2009 through 2015, the state only received over $1 million dollars annually twice. Since 2018, the state has received an annual payment of between $28-51 million. This is a reflection of the program shifting to a new phase where states get a bigger percentage of oil and gas revenues.

Mississippi’s Gulf coast faces major environmental challenges – the devastation of the oyster industry from numerous disasters, most recently the opening of the Bonnet Carre spillway; bacteria and water pollution hurting coastal tourism and fisheries; and the long-term loss of coastal habitat that helps sustain the Sound’s ecosystem. It’s incredibly important that this money actually goes to coastal conservation and restoration. No matter who controls the purse strings, political leaders need to be held accountable for how this money is spent.

At a recent Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources meeting, DMR staff indicated that they are moving forward on developing an oyster management plan. As that develops, GOMESA funding could help make sure Mississippi has the resources to succeed in sustaining its oyster industry and the health of the Mississippi Sound.

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