Celebrate the Gulf!
This beloved festival within a festival takes place during Art in the Pass each year, much to the delight of all who love the magical Gulf in our own backyard.
- by LB Kovac
Celebrate the Gulf Marine Education Festival takes place on Saturday, April 1st from 10am – 3pm, in Pass Christian’s War Memorial Park. The event is a popular part of Art in the Pass, a larger weekend festival that showcases work by artists from across the region.
Celebrate the Gulf is one of many outreach programs sponsored by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR). The festival is free and offers many fun opportunities for children to learn more about Mississippi’s diverse marine life.
Booths and activities will showcase plants like plankton and algae, fish like sharks and rockfish, and non-marine species that have a symbiotic relationship with the Gulf, including coastal birds.
And while the Gulf is home to millions of species of plants and animals, most children rarely see them except on the Discovery Channel or on their plates. At Celebrate the Gulf, they can get up close and personal with many of these species – including sharks, dolphins, and lionfish.
Melissa Scallan, MDMR’s director of public affairs, reports that last year’s festival was a big success, and this year’s event will be even bigger.
The exciting Raptor Roadshow – featuring birds of prey - schooner rides of the harbor, and coloring contests will be returning. Representatives from the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) and the International Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) will also be on hand to answer questions and lead activities.
Oysters will be one of the featured species at the festival this year. MDMR is responsible for 17 natural oyster reefs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, safeguarding them for future generations.
Oysters are a valuable commodity to the Mississippi economy; last year, hundreds of thousands of bushels were harvested from gulf reefs, where they eventually ended up on plates across the United States. Oysters also play an important part in the state’s marine ecology - they attract blue crabs, starfish, and other sea creatures to the gulf’s waters.
It takes about two years for an American oyster to reach full “market” size – about 3 inches, in length. During those first two years of their lives, the little mollusks live in clusters, called “reefs,” on the seabed, where they filter the water for plankton, their favorite food.
It might seem like every restaurant has oysters on the menu, but they are not nearly as prevalent as they were fifty years ago, or even twenty years ago. Oyster harvests across the country are currently at 1% of historic levels.
Pollutants from natural disasters like the BP oil spill down severely depleted local reefs, and “aquatic hitchhiking” has introduced invasive species, like the Southern oyster drill, which eat the oysters at a rate faster than they can reproduce.
“Aquatic hitchhiking” is a practice that is increasing in occurrence. Part of the festival’s mission is to empower attendees to protect the gulf on their own.
When people or objects like boats or buoys enter the water - even for a short time - plant life, small animals, and microscopic organisms make themselves at home on fabric, plastic, and other common materials. When the people go elsewhere or the objects are moved, they can take these “hitchhikers” with them, inadvertently spreading them to an area where they can harm plants or animals in another vicinity.
Luckily, as you’ll learn at the festival, aquatic hitchhiking is easily preventable. Rinsing off clothing, boats, and equipment at the dock or near the site can ensure that species native to the area stay there. You’ll do your part to protect the species currently in Mississippi waters.
For the past six years, Celebrate the Gulf has paired with Art in the Pass. Scallan says that the co-events provide the perfect opportunity for families to have fun and learn more about the world around them.
“People can come to one place [for Art in the Pass and Celebrate the Gulf]. There are lots of events for kids, and lots of opportunities for education,” she said.