Local Experiences

Why is the Water Brown?

8/2/2018 | Connie Raley

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We get a lot of questions here on the Gulf Coast regarding our still, brown water. Nature has gifted us with an estuary that produces some of the most delicious seafood in the country. An estuary is a body of water that is found where fresh river water meets the salty sea. As these two combine, they create brackish water that is the perfect breeding and feeding ground for many plant and animal lives. Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, and ours is a nursery that is responsible for over 90% of the seafood in the Gulf of Mexico. It allows for juvenile shrimp, crab and fish to grow free from predators. Our fishing and shrimping industry has been a way of life for the people here on the Gulf Coast. As far back as 1869, Biloxi was known as the Seafood Capital of the World.

So why is it brown? That is a question that I have diligently been asking myself. We have several large rivers carrying detritus, sediment and even clay particles. Detritus is defined as "waste or debris of any kind,” such as gravel, sand or any material caused by erosion; this material is organic in nature and not waste. There is a certain amount of algae laden detritus that is important to the filter feeders, such as jelly fish and oysters.

Aside from the erosion, plants decompose along the river banks and produce tannins that make the water appear brown or green. Trees decay leaving organic compounds behind that contain nutrients that support organic activity, build marshes and flow down the river into our ocean and provide a food source for our seafood.

According to George Ramseur, director of Coastal Restoration and Resiliency at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, "rivers flowing in are rich in organic material that feed a vi- brant coastal ecosystem. It is good food that is metabolized by plants and creatures, then breaks down and fuels new life.”

However, the sediment that runs down from the rivers is not always helpful as it can cause hy- poxia issues; which is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen that reaches the tissues of these organisms. To help maintain the delicate balance necessary for the healthy growth of our sea life, the MDMR oversees an array of marine issues. Kristina Broussard,a marine fisheries scien- tist at MDMR, monitors the water for phytoplankton and zooplankton, which is the food source for many organisms. Those plankton are abundant in our waters, and also a cause for the water to be brown, green- and sometimes red. Our shores will be closed and fishing suspended if a restoration of balance is needed.

What’s unique to the Mississippi Gulf Coast is that we have a natural barrier that separates our shores from the rest of the Gulf of Mexico. It also prevents the river water from just washing straight out to sea. From our shores, especially on a clear day, you can see in the distance trees on pieces of land that seem like giant sand bars. These are the Barrier Islands. We would not be who we have been for centuries without these islands. They help to trap the waters that flow down from the rivers and create the estuary that is responsible for our coast lifestyle.

The Barrier Islands are also responsible for the stillness of our ocean. They block the waves coming in and create what has come to be known as the Mississippi Sound. On some days, you can look out over the water and the atmosphere in the sky reflects on the stillness creating a beautiful wash of color that looks like a sheet of glass where there is seemingly no horizon, no end of water and beginning of sky. Those are my favorite moments, whether its a soft, transparent blue and white, a foggy grey, or sunset pink. I’ve just not seen a view like that anywhere else.
Dan Wittman of Wut Sup Paddleboards says that it’s really important that people are educated about our water. It’s not polluted, it just happens to be brown. However, during the winter months, when the winds change and blow offshore, the water becomes really clear. As he paddles out to the gulf, he says you can see clear to the bottom of the gulf floor. We have the same water as Alabama and Florida, but ours is so nutrient-rich that it makes for great fishing.

We are so proud of the seafood that comes from our Gulf that we hold festivals to celebrate. Fall is a great time for gathering and hosts two of our largest events: the Biloxi Seafood Festival and the Oyster Cook-off.

Saturday and Sunday, September 8-9 is the 37th Annual Biloxi Seafood Festival and is a cele- bration of our seafood heritage. There will be live entertainment, activities for kids, arts and crafts- and, of course, local seafood. And don’t miss the gumbo championship on Sunday! This festival is the biggest fund-raiser of the year for the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce and benefits the community through small business grants, scholarships, teacher grants, and old building revisions, just to name a few.
Friday and Saturday, September 28-29 is the Oyster Cook-off, where contestants will compete in three categories including charbroiled, raw, and a house specialty. National Country Touring artists and local and regional bands will perform. Enjoy a Rock-n-Roll car, jeep and bike show and check out the local and regional artists showcasing their work. This event is fun for the whole family and offers a free kid’s fun zone.

As you can see, the color of our water is the result of the tannins, plankton, algae and other living organisms, and fuel the circle of life provided to the fish, shrimp, oysters, and crab that, in turn, feed not only our bellies, but also our way of life. Come celebrate food, fun, and festival with us. Come celebrate #coastlife.
Connie Raley