Indian River Lagoon looks lackluster in annual report card

As fish float up and browned water froths with thick organic algae suds, the Indian River Lagoon continues to score poorly on a yearly report card put out by a regional nonprofit group, testing the endurance of those who hope to save the estuary.

Water quality has improved for many segments the Marine Resources Council examines for its yearly lagoon progress report. But seagrass — a key measure of the lagoon’s ecological health — hasn’t followed suit, the nonprofit says.

“There is lag between water quality and seagrass,” Leesa Souto, executive director of the nonprofit Marine Resources Council, explained Tuesday during a web presentation of MRC’s fourth-annual lagoon report card. “Water quality is steady or improving across the board … but, in most places, it’s still not meeting regulatory targets, so what are we going to do about it?”

Seagrass also is not improving in most areas, MRC’s report shows, leaving conservation biologists scratching their heads as to why.
“Are we looking at enough to really understand the ecological function of the lagoon?” Souto asked.

During her unveiling of this year’s report, Souto showed maps and tables of lagoon areas covered in dark red, signifying “poor” scores for water quality and seagrass coverage that appeared to overwhelm the orange, yellow and green areas that signify cleaner lagoon segments with more seagrass.

Excess phosphorus and nitrogen keep fueling algae, blocking sunlight seagrass needs to grow, according to MRC’s report, which reflects 2019 water quality and seagrass data.

Advertisements

The lagoon hasn’t looked much better, lately. Last week, thousands of dead rays, skates, shrimp and fish speckled shorelines from the NASA Causeway in Titusville to State Road 520 Causeway in Cocoa. And, this week, winds frothed up suds on the lagoon surface in the Melbourne area, as algae broke down and resembled sea foam.

Souto called for increased water-quality monitoring — especially in the lagoon’s tributaries, where the estuary’s emerging pollution problems first begin to flow — and for voluntary elimination of chemical lawn fertilizer use and a switch to organic fertilizers instead.

“The tributaries have really lost a lot of their monitoring when the state budgets got cut,” Souto said. “We know the tributaries are telling the story of where the pollution is coming from.”

As fish float up and browned water froths with thick organic algae suds, the Indian River Lagoon continues to score poorly on a yearly report card put out by a regional nonprofit group, testing the endurance of those who hope to save the estuary.

Water quality has improved for many segments the Marine Resources Council examines for its yearly lagoon progress report. But seagrass — a key measure of the lagoon’s ecological health — hasn’t followed suit, the nonprofit says.

“There is lag between water quality and seagrass,” Leesa Souto, executive director of the nonprofit Marine Resources Council, explained Tuesday during a web presentation of MRC’s fourth-annual lagoon report card. “Water quality is steady or improving across the board … but, in most places, it’s still not meeting regulatory targets, so what are we going to do about it?”

Advertisements

Seagrass also is not improving in most areas, MRC’s report shows, leaving conservation biologists scratching their heads as to why.

“Are we looking at enough to really understand the ecological function of the lagoon?” Souto asked.

During her unveiling of this year’s report, Souto showed maps and tables of lagoon areas covered in dark red, signifying “poor” scores for water quality and seagrass coverage that appeared to overwhelm the orange, yellow and green areas that signify cleaner lagoon segments with more seagrass.

Excess phosphorus and nitrogen keep fueling algae, blocking sunlight seagrass needs to grow, according to MRC’s report, which reflects 2019 water quality and seagrass data.

The lagoon hasn’t looked much better, lately. Last week, thousands of dead rays, skates, shrimp and fish speckled shorelines from the NASA Causeway in Titusville to State Road 520 Causeway in Cocoa. And, this week, winds frothed up suds on the lagoon surface in the Melbourne area, as algae broke down and resembled sea foam.

Souto called for increased water-quality monitoring — especially in the lagoon’s tributaries, where the estuary’s emerging pollution problems first begin to flow — and for voluntary elimination of chemical lawn fertilizer use and a switch to organic fertilizers instead.

“The tributaries have really lost a lot of their monitoring when the state budgets got cut,” Souto said. “We know the tributaries are telling the story of where the pollution is coming from.”

In the stagnant northern lagoon, from the west side of Merritt Island, from Oak Hill to Melbourne Causeway, water quality is slightly declining, but the seagrasses are significantly declining (in 2019), Souto added.

In the central lagoon, from Melbourne Causeway to Sebastian Inlet, water quality is improving, but seagrasses “have just disappeared,” Souto said.

In Indian River County, “they have been slowly but surely improving water quality in this section of the lagoon,” Souto added. But, again, the seagrasses are still in decline.

MRC’s annual lagoon health update compares key indicators with healthy targets to gauge how lagoon conditions are changing over time.

The reports examine various segments of the lagoon, looking at more than 20 years of water quality and habitat data, including measures of chlorophyll — a pigment in algae and other plants — nitrogen, phosphorus, seagrass and the typical cloudiness of the water.

For much of the lagoon, phosphorus has gotten worse since 2010, MRC says, the same time the estuary began to experience extreme harmful algae blooms. Phosphorus sources include car washes, sewage, fertilizers, sediments and canal discharges.

Advertisements

Nitrogen, which also can trigger excess algae, had been decreasing, since sewer plants stopped directly discharging into the lagoon in the 1990s.

Nitrogen had improved a bit for a while, until 2016, where it increased throughout the estuary.

Since 2005, the southern lagoon (the St. Lucie area) scored better for nitrogen levels than the rest of the lagoon.

According to the St. Johns River Water Management District, every 2.5 acres of seagrass supports up to 100,000 fish; 100 million worms, snails, clams and other invertebrates; and up to $10,000 in economic activity.

For months, biologists had been discussing — and fearing — that the lagoon’s ongoing algae blooms eventually would kill marine life and seagrass en masse. Ongoing warmer-than-usual temperatures worsened the situation.

But they say this latest lagoon fish die-off in Brevard is nowhere near the levels of dead fish the 156-mile lagoon region saw in 2016. In the short term, they say, this week’s cold, windy weather should stir up enough oxygen in the water to bring some temporary relief for fish and the coastal dwellers who must bear the odor of their collective demise.

The suspected culprit behind the fish kill so far, biologists said, is a type of a marine cyanobacteria, a microscopic algae that is always in the lagoon, but not at the levels seen recently and not known to be toxic.

Two phytoplankton blooms devastated the lagoon’s seagrass in 2011, followed by two years of brown algae blooms, ultimately killing 47,000 acres of seagrass.

A major “superbloom” of green and blue-green algae was first seen in Banana River Lagoon in March 2011. Within a month or two, the bloom spread westward through the Barge Canal and into the northern lagoon near Cocoa, then northward through Haulover Canal and into southern Mosquito Lagoon. Ultimately, the bloom covered 132,500 acres.

The superbloom was preceded and accompanied by a less intense bloom that began in late 2010 and eventually covered 47,500 acres (74 square miles) from southern Banana River Lagoon to just north of Fort Pierce Inlet.

In Indialantic this week, the lagoon near Fleming Law’s home began frothing up like dishwater detergent. But Law said he didn’t see anyone washing a boat, and these suds look different.

“It keeps running down from the north side, with the wind,” Law said. “It fills in the canal. … I’ve lived in this location with this view since 1968, and have never seen this before.”

Submit a report of a fish kill online, or call the Fish Kill Hotline: 800-636-0511 or submit a report online at https://protect-us.mimecast.com/s/m4iXCERXz9SWDMo5vhNvMPp?domain=public.myfwc.com/

Report sick, and or injured wildlife at 888-404-3922 or Tip@MyFWC.com

Advertisements

Leave a Reply