MS Coast Marks Changes Four Years After BP Oil Spill
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Shrimp boats at the Lighthouse Fishing Pier on the Back Bay of Biloxi.

The Ship Island Excursions ferry gets ready to head out of the Gulfport harbor. Captain Louis Skrmetta's family has been plying these waters since 1926. The business had just started to recover from Hurricane Katrina when the oil spill began.

In many ways, the calm waters of the Mississippi sound, stretching out in all directions from the busy ferry, look fine now.

But so far this year, more than 800 pounds of tar balls have been collected from the state’s barrier islands. And other things have changed too. There’s more testing of seafood. Fishermen are back on the water, but many say they're not catching as much.

Skrmetta says seafood is one of the state's main tourism draws, so the health of the industry is linked to his own. He believes the BP oil spill, while not the only factor in the decline of Mississippi's seafood industry, has helped accelerate it.

"I think it caused 50 to 60 years worth of damage to an already overburdened marine environment," Skrmetta says. 

Coast tourism has received millions from BP for marketing and events, and Skrmetta says that has helped. The oil company has also paid for early restoration, such as building oyster and artificial reefs, and will pay many hundrerds of millions more in coming years.

Mississipi Department of Environmental Quality director Trudy Fisher says the state will next month kick off a three-year, $3.6 million planning project for the restoration funds coming from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

BP is also funding $500 million dollars in independent research, which is helping scientists learn new things about the Gulf and oil spills. This includes a 10-year study of the spill's effect on the health of 33-thousand oil spill responders. One of the first findings: clean-up workers had a 30% higher likelihood of depression. 

Dale Sandler,  the lead researcher for the National Institutes of Health study, says it seems that there is a higher incidence of wheezing now but it will take years to find out if there is a difference in rates of diseases such as cancer. 

In a recent report, BP says it’s spent $27 billion so far, gulf-wide, on response, cleanup, restoration and claims. But what has a lot of people worried are the impacts that aren't known or even seen yet. 

Mississippi Wildlife Federation executive director Brad Young says these changes could affect generations of marine and wildlife. 

Moby Solangi is the director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. He says this year, they've seen a spike in baby dolphin deaths. The Gulf is a complex ecosystem, so it’s hard to point to one cause, however, there has been a rise in dolphin and sea turtle deaths and strandings since 2010, he says.

Solangi, and others, say there is one thing that has fundamentally changed due to the spill, and that’s the public’s understanding of the Gulf’s importance and the billions it contributes to state and national economies. He says this has led to a greater focus on ways to improve the Gulf generally  -- as well as the funding to do it.

As the state starts to decide what restoration will look like, Coast fishermen - who livelihood is directly affected by the health of the gulf - say they want to be a part of the process.

In the back bay of Biloxi, fishermen are repairing their shrimp boats. Thao Vu with the Mississippi Coalition of Vietnamese Fisherfolk and Families says, four years after the spill, fishermen are still struggling.

Ngo Gin, a shrimp boat deckhand, says he's been on trips where they spent more on fuel and expenses than they earned from the shrimp they caught. Vu says that Gin's wife has had to leave to look for work elsewhere.

But, the fishermen continue to work on their boats, getting ready for this year’s shrimp season.

Vu says 80 percent of the Vietnamese American community, entire families, work in commercial fishing. Many have invested everything in these boats.

It's still not known how much, but restoration funding is also expected to come to the state from the RESTORE Act and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment.