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Wipeout of marine life along Gulf feared

Fisheries biologist Jim Franks thinks that just as it will take time to clear up the mess in his Katrina-shattered offices, so it will take time for the marine life to recover its balance.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed not only property like these shrimp boats in Venice, La., but also miles of coastline, raising fears that marine life was wiped out.Lynne Sladky / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Fisherman Greg Verges believes the shrimp knew a bad storm was coming their way even before the locals did.

The week before Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic arrival, Verges’ boat landed 400 pounds of prime quality shrimp in the Biloxi channel. Then, day after day, the catches fell off.

“On the day before Katrina, I brought home just 40 shrimps. The others must have known something real mean was happening and did something about it,” said Verges, adding with a raw smile: “I sure hope so, for all our sakes.”

Commercial and sport fishing is one of the biggest industries in the state of Mississippi and Katrina dealt it a devastating blow. Many boats were destroyed, the shipyards in nearby Biloxi wrecked and the marinas obliterated.

What the anxious captains don’t know is how the shrimp, oysters and fish fared.

Scientist’s view
Jim Franks, a fisheries biologist at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, thinks that just as it will take time to clear up the mess in his storm-shattered offices, so it will take time for the marine life to recover its balance.

“Obviously coastal habitat has been destroyed, off-shore reefs altered. All the nutrients have been redistributed and the sediment churned up,” said Franks, who lost his own house to the hurricane and some prized, long-running experiments.

While the sediment spells death for oysters unable to escape the choking silt, other marine life might eventually benefit from the churning waters in the same way that forests can be rejuvenated by fire.

“This might just represent part of Mother Nature’s great project and give a boost to life,” said Franks, who has worked in the Gulf Coast labs on and off for 42 years.

“Obviously hurricanes have been hitting here for centuries. The trouble is it is now so heavily populated that this is a real disaster for the people living here.”

Wiped out by tidal surge
Verges, a pot-bellied skipper with bright, bulging eyes, has measured out his life in hurricanes and couldn’t agree more.

He arrived with his family to settle on the Gulf Coast the night Hurricane Elena hit in 1985. He built his bait shop one centimeter higher than the tidal surge of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and then sat out year after year of often violent storm.

The confidence of having survived so easily before almost cost him his life with Katrina. Its tidal surge poured into his Fort Bayou Bait Shop and Verges almost drowned trying to save his “spooky-man black cat” from the rapidly rising waters.

“Don’t get me wrong. It sure is nice to be alive, but I think the industry is real screwed,” he said, calculating that his wrecked freezers, emptied shrimp pools and lost business have so far cost him $40,000.

And he has no idea when he can start fishing again.

Locals fear their fishing waters might have been contaminated by all the waste and know it is going to take them months to clear the debris that will otherwise snag their nets.

Sailing out into the Ocean Springs estuary, the Old Fort Bayou, you can see the masts of sunken boats poking through the waves and iron beams jutting out like giant javelins.

No ospreys, hawks seen
On the shoreline, many sea-facing houses have simply vanished and the rich verdant forest of pines and oaks looks like a New England autumn, the leaves burnt orange by their lengthy immersion in the salty surge.

The once vibrant bird life has also gone. A decaying cormorant floats in the marshes, a sole seagull with a twisted, broken leg flies overhead. No-one has sighted any ospreys or hawks since the storm swept north.

“I guess the birds had no-where to hide,” said 59-year-old Lorenzo Owen, who has retired and spends much of his life sailing the bayou. While the birds have gone, other local animals do appear to be resurfacing, including the alligators.

“I used to have three alligators live opposite the house but they disappeared with Katrina. Well, a week a later, I get in my boat and there’s one of them back looking at me,” he says, a can of beer resting easily in his hand.

“Now I ain’t too fond of alligators, but I was sure happy to see him come home.”  REUTERS