Workshop launches support for waterfront access

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Jun 07,  2006

As the face of the Mississippi Gulf Coast changes, it is important to preserve and improve one of its valuable lifelines: waterfront access.

That was the message of a June 7 workshop in Biloxi that brought seafood industry representatives, recreational fishermen, charter boat captains and government leaders together to discuss ways to keep water-dependent businesses a permanent part of the coastline. Making a plan to protect those businesses and public waterfront access is important before development squeezes them out.

The Coast needs a group of supporters from diverse backgrounds to tackle the task of making a long-range Coastwide waterfront plan, the workshop participants agreed. The alliance should examine ways to keep shrimpers, seafood processors, ice houses and the like, in business. Options may include tax incentives to prevent business owners from selling their waterfront properties to the highest bidder. The partnership also should search for ways to fund the public purchase of waterfront land.

It mostly comes down to money, said Biloxi Harbormaster Frankie Duggan. And, some money can be obtained through different grant opportunities. “If we stick together, we got a bigger voice, we have more influence in politics,” he said at the meeting at the Mississippi State Coastal Research and Extension Center.

Biloxi owns three marinas on the front beach, and a commercial dock on the Back Bay of Biloxi, Duggan said. The city is planning a 600-slip expansion at the Point Cadet Marina.

Duggan said he believes Mayor A.J. Holloway is committed to keeping Biloxi true to its seafood roots.

“Biloxi was built on shrimp boats and oyster shell,” Duggan said. “It’d be sad if you can’t buy fresh shrimp in the seafood capital of the world.” LaDon Swann, the director of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, which sponsored the workshop, said the loss of working waterfronts is one of the three great challenges facing the fishing industry.

“You’ve heard a lot about fuel prices,” Swann said. “You heard a lot about imported shrimp. But, without access to the water for the commercial and recreational fishing industry, all those other issues are moot.”

Swann encouraged the about 20 people at the workshop to begin the dialogue that may lead to future successes.

“We have to come together and work together to preserve what we want as far as waterfront access,” he said.

Guest speaker Natalie Springuel, a marine extension associate of Maine Sea Grant, brought a message of hope to those who worry that access to the coastal waters is shrinking.

Voters and government leaders in Maine have taken steps to make public access to working waterfronts a priority and a reality.

Although the new push for conservation of working waterfronts is only a few years old, the partnership to support it helped spark voters to approve a 2005 bond issue that allocated millions of dollars waterfront property purchases. The state also offers property tax breaks to commercial fishers, which helps prevent them from selling their waterfront land because of skyrocketing taxes.

Martin Hegwood of the Miss. Secretary of State’s Office said Secretary of State Eric Clark is committed to providing waterfront access and conserving greenspace. He mentioned the purchase of Deer Island as an illustration of Clark’s dedication to preservation.

And, it appears that support for the Coast’s seafood heritage runs deep in Harrison County.

Harrison County Supervisor Connie Rocko said the county has received a check for about $168,000 to study the possibility of creating an inland seafood industrial park in northern Harrison County.

Rocko said she will consider supporting the project if it is meant to provide protection for seafood processing plants during hurricanes, but not if it is meant to take the boats off the water.

“I don’t think anything is more beautiful or more tourist-attracting than looking out and seeing shrimp boats, the working boats and actually seeing charter boats and knowing you have access to them,” she said.

But, the access often depends on public ownership.

“We need to identify opportunities along the Coast of Mississippi where it makes sense that if we don’t already own it, we can acquire it,” said Bill Walker of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.


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