An oysterman maneuvers his boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
Oystermen tonging in Apalachicola Bay, United States © Richard Bickel

Climate Change Stories

Climate Change Is Killing Coastal Gulf Fisheries

Dr. James McClintock.
James McClintock Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at University of Alabama at Birmingham


Marine life along the Gulf of Mexico is not doing well. Vast numbers of oysters, blue crabs, shrimp, and fin fish off coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and bays of Alabama have been killed outright or driven from marshes.

In Louisiana and Mississippi, the death blow was an unprecedented outflow of fresh water juiced, among other sources, by the opening of the Louisiana Bonnet Carre Spillway that poured fresh water from an already swollen Mississippi River into Mississippi Sound.

A woman in a kayak hauls an oyster rig for an Alabama farm.
FEELING THE IMPACTS Depe's Oysters of Coden, Alabama, is among more than 100 members of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. © Depe's Oysters

The resultant massive slug of coastal fresh water is ultimately the result of the record-breaking rainfall in the Midwest, boosted by climate change. Moreover, it is not just the states in close proximity to the Mississippi River that are experiencing fresh water impacts. In Alabama, Andy Depaola, who owns and operates Depe Oysters, an oyster farm in Mobile Bay, reports that the salinity has been so low around Point Clear in Mobile Bay that losses of oysters may exceed the losses in Mississippi Sound.

The impacts of coastal fresh water go much deeper than the dramatic loss of oyster, shrimp and crabbing industries reported by Joe Spraggins, Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

Quote: Dr. James McClintock

One of the most politically potent groups sharing their narrative of climate change on the Hill is the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition.

Juvenile Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle moving through wet sand.
FEELING THE FRESHWATER SURGE Endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtles are among the many species threatened by increasing fresh water surges into the Gulf of Mexico. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Hundreds of jobs in seafood harvesting and processing and their downstream impacts on family livelihoods are at risk.

Over the past several weeks, the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi have asked the federal government for Federal Fisheries Disaster Declarations to help offset losses. As if the loss of coastal fin- and shell-fish were not enough, Moby Solangi, Executive Director of the Mississippi Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, reported 128 dolphins and 154 sea turtles have become likely victims of the big freshwater flush, many of their carcasses sporting fresh water lesions. Record losses of dolphins and sea turtles, both considered key indicators of the overall health of marine environments, speak not just to the human heart but also to the growing challenges of climate change to the sustainability of coastal ecosystems.

Even here in the relatively conservative South, the days of speculating about the hypothetical impacts of climate change are largely over.

A person wearing a glove shucking oysters.
SHUCKING OYSTERS Gulf Coast shellfish growers are feeling the challenge of climate change–and doing something about it. © Liz Georges/TNC

While visiting I learned that one of the most politically potent groups sharing their narrative of climate change on the hill is the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. Made up of more than 100 oyster fishers from shellfish industries along our Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, their collective plea to reduce national carbon emissions is rooted in the need to mitigate the ocean acidification and warming that threaten their industry.

Their voices are certain to be amplified as local and Midwest flooding rain continues to devastate the coastal fisheries of the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Originally published in
June 27, 2019
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Dr. James McClintock.

Dr. James McClintock is the Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at University of Alabama at Birmingham, and is an award-winning climate communicator. He is a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, and also a spokesperson for The Nature Conservancy’s “Can We Talk Climate” pledge campaign.