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Postcards from Mississippi

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In honor of the 5-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Ocean Conservancy interviewed residents about the spill, its impacts and what the Gulf means to them. Over the 87 days—the length of the spill itself—we are releasing “postcards from the Gulf” to share their stories. This blog is the last of a four-part series featuring some of the full-length interviews from our postcards. Be sure to follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook and Twitter to see all of the postcards.

The people of Mississippi do not take their environment for granted. Like Captain Louis Skrmetta, whose grandfather founded Ship Island Excursions in 1926 to ferry passengers from the Gulfport Harbor to enjoy Mississippi’s uninhabited barrier islands. For more than a century, the Skrmettas have been working in the seafood, boat building and ferry service industries. Skrmetta and his family make their living off this unique attraction of the Gulf. Mississippi folks aren’t shy about speaking up for their community either. That’s what I find so incredible about Roberta Avila who has been a tireless advocate for more than 25 years and who continues to raise the volume of Biloxi’s voices so they will be heard by restoration decision-makers. These are their stories.

Roberta Avila
Executive Director of the Steps Coalition
Biloxi, MS

What have you learned from the BP oil disaster?

Since the oil disaster, Steps has worked with regional and local groups to ensure residents are informed about decisions that are being made about how to restore the Gulf Coast. There are barriers to participation particularly with the Vietnamese community, many of whom don’t speak English.

I’m still very worried about what we don’t know, like what the effect is of the oil and the dispersant, and when will we know that? It may be 10 years, or 15 years. What we do know is that the oil disaster is having an impact on the sea life and that’s very worrisome. There is a real need to have a better understanding about environmental science and about how everything in the environment is connected.
If we don’t understand how things are impacted we won’t understand what projects to do or why.

What is your hope for restoring the Gulf?

We need to remain vigilant about how this recovery is going to move forward and making sure community members are at the table to talk about what they want to see in their community. Restoration really should be reflecting people’s values. People know what they want– they want a healthy sound so they can fish and clean water so they can swim. They want good seafood.

We need to make sure the funding is there to do the monitoring because we need the data to know how the Gulf is recovering and responding over the long term to the restoration choices we are making, so we are learning from that. We need to create opportunities for residents to be able to be trained and employed to do the work and help them get well-paying jobs restoring the Gulf.

Louis Skrmetta
Ship Island Excursions
Gulfport, MS

What do you love about the Gulf?

I started as a deckhand for my father in the ‘70s and now it’s been 40 years that I’ve been a licensed captain on a ferry boat. My grandfather was a Croatian immigrant that came to southern Mississippi in 1903. I run a business that’s been in my family for almost 85 years and we depend heavily on a clean environment.

What have you learned from the BP oil disaster?

We were having problems before the oil spill with overfishing and poor regulations. Then comes the oil spill and the heavy use of dispersants in the prime areas of these fishes’ prime spawning grounds. I have seen the mullet population around the Mississippi barrier islands literally disappear. In the old days, there used to be hundreds of thousands in the schools. Now when you see a school of mullet, it’s so rare. The same with the dolphins, whose main source of food is these mullet, and they were swimming right where the oil was and where they were spraying the dispersant.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this problem is not over. Yeah, the beaches are cleaner, the oil is out of sight, but we still have a problem of the remnants of oil right off the Mississippi barrier islands. Every time you have a storm or weather event, it’s lifted up and placed on the islands.

What is your hope for restoring the Gulf?

We need to protect and restore the barrier islands, those high quality natural beaches, those wonderful marine forests, the incredible wildlife that depends and lives on those islands, the quality of life the islands provide to the local residents and the visitors, those wonderful sunsets and great water quality coupled with what was once one of the richest seafood producers, the Mississippi Sound. If we do, we could create jobs and sustain our economy and the restoration money could be part of that.

More blogs from this series:
Postcards from Alabama
Postcards from Louisiana
Postcards from Florida

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