Environment

Indian River Lagoon facing an uncertain future

 

The overflow of fresh water is just one of the factors contributing to the potential ecological collapse of the 156-mile Indian River Lagoon.

 
Although the Indian River Lagoon is in bad shape, it is still possible to catch a nice snook, such as this one estimated at 12 pounds held by Joelle Reynolds of Stuart.  The fish was caught using a  D.O.A. black and gold Terror-Eyz lure.
Although the Indian River Lagoon is in bad shape, it is still possible to catch a nice snook, such as this one estimated at 12 pounds held by Joelle Reynolds of Stuart. The fish was caught using a D.O.A. black and gold Terror-Eyz lure.
Susan Cocking / Miami Herald Staff

scocking@MiamiHerald.com

Just about every summer for the past decade or more, anglers and guides who ply the Indian River Lagoon have prayed for drought. Drought means less discharge of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary. Lower-than-normal rainfall means less chance of storm drains gushing, sewage treatment plants overflowing and septic tanks leaking.

But the summer of 2013 has been anything but dry so far, and too much fresh water is only one of a myriad of factors that might be propelling the 156-mile lagoon toward ecological collapse.

“Unless they do something quick — like yesterday — this isn’t going to be a viable body of water,” Palm City fly-fishing guide Marcia Foosaner said. “It’s really heart-breaking. It was such a great area.

“I think this has hit the tipping point.”

Throughout the lagoon — a shallow body of water sheltered by barrier islands that extends from just north of Jupiter Inlet to Ponce Inlet — horror stories abound: dead manatees, pelicans and dolphins; sporadic fish kills; once-lush meadows of sea grass now gone; pervasive algae blooms; and foul-smelling, opaque waters.

“For me, sight fishing is out,” said Foosaner, a dedicated wader. “The water looks so bad, I felt like I had to fumigate myself.”

The lagoon has experienced sea grass die-offs and algae blooms before, but practically nobody can remember anything like what has been going on since the spring of 2011. That’s when a “superbloom” of phytoplankton overtook the Mosquito Lagoon and northern Indian River Lagoon, and more than 30,000 acres of sea grass died. As if that weren’t trouble enough, in June last year the area was beset by brown algae blamed for ecological problems in Texas estuaries in the 1990s but never seen before in Florida. The brown algae, which turned previously clear waters a muddy brown, was followed by a reddish algae that creates saxitoxin, a poison that makes people ill.

The brown algae subsided last winter, according to captain Chris Myers, who conducts charters in Mosquito Lagoon.

“November through May, it was crystal clear,” Myers said. “But as soon as that water hit 75 degrees, it’s exploded again. It’s from Titusville north to the dead end of the river and all of Mosquito Lagoon. It’s made what I do — sight fishing — in the lagoon, it kills it.”

But not all lagoon waters are steeped in algae and mud.

For some reason, the area around Sebastian Inlet remains crystal clear, according to veteran light-tackle guide Glyn Austin of Palm Bay.

“The water is clean with no habitat,” Austin said. “Eighty percent of the grass is gone on the flats at the inlet. I’m not sure why it died. There are some fish around — snook, trout and redfish.”

Scientists and resource managers say they can not pinpoint exactly what’s killing the grass, birds and marine mammals, but there are several possible causes — excessive fresh water releases; degradation of water quality; nutrient and contaminant loading; and ocean acidification — or a combination of all of these factors.

The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce was supposed to get $2 million from the state to look into the problem, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

The Indian River Estuary Program is looking at the feasibility of channeling more ocean water into the estuary to flush out the algae and dirty water. Possibilities include dredging a new inlet or deepening the existing ones, or building culverts through the barrier islands. Some people are even hoping a hurricane will blast a new path into the lagoon.

Meanwhile, the problems already are affecting the livelihoods of fishing guides who earn their living putting anglers on fish in the lagoon.

“You’ve either got to tell people the truth and half of them don’t want to go, or you could lie to them, then they’ll see how bad it is and they’ll tell everybody,” Myers said.

“I don’t know that there’s any cure that man can do.”

Read more Outdoors stories from the Miami Herald

  • Swim Miami offers multiple courses

    Whether you are an advanced swimmer or an amateur looking to improve your time, the 2014 Swim Miami presented by Nike will have something for you.

  •  
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Tribute: </span>Runner’s shoes are laid out in a display titled, ‘Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial,’ in the Boston Public Library.

    In My Opinion

    Linda Robertson: Runners remember Boston Marathon tragedy

    Amber Seidle-Lazo had run 26 miles of the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon when she was stopped by police one year ago on April 15 and told the finish line was closed.

  • Tarpon fishing

    Controversial PTTS goes on with added scrutiny

    When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided last year to ban the use of a popular type of fishing tackle for pursuing tarpon in Southwest Florida’s Boca Grande Pass, many thought that would be the end of the zany reality show/fishing contest known as the Professional Tarpon Tournament Series.

Get your Miami Heat Fan Gear!

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category