Fred Grimm

Massive fish kill makes Florida water emergency difficult to ignore

What started as reports of a fish kill of a few hundred last week in Brevard County in Sykes Creek has turned into the deaths of thousands in the Indian River Lagoon in the Banana River from Cape Canaveral south to Melbourne.
What started as reports of a fish kill of a few hundred last week in Brevard County in Sykes Creek has turned into the deaths of thousands in the Indian River Lagoon in the Banana River from Cape Canaveral south to Melbourne. MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY

Water surfaces were hidden under a startling expanse of mottled gray, as if someone had covered the lagoons with a Jackson Pollock abstract. It takes a moment for the eye (or perhaps the nose) to decipher the stippled tableau and understand that Space Coast waterways have been transformed into rotting cauldrons of dead marine life.

A fish kill, like no other Central Florida fish kill in memory, has choked the Banana River, Sykes Creek, the Indian River and the Mosquito Lagoon with hundreds of thousands of fish carcasses. Brevard County commissioners were told Tuesday that — so far — about 65,000 pounds of dead fish have been skimmed off the water in the last two weeks. And who knows what’s rotting on the river bottoms.

The commissioners listened for hours in a public hearing Tuesday as local citizens begged them to enact measures that could save the dying estuary. “Brace yourself,” warned Duane De Freese, director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. He said that in the warmer months ahead, “I expect to see more fish kills.”

Don’t confuse the devastation along the Indian River estuary, which reaches about 150 miles south of Titusville, with the calamity afflicting the St. Lucie River. The killing algae along the St. Lucie comes from massive water releases from Lake Okeechobee, which adds tons of phosphorus and nitrogen farm pollutants to the river.

Nor is the Indian River problem related to the worrisome saltwater plume (with a touch of tritium) threatening the Biscayne Bay aquifer around the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in southern Miami-Dade County.

But surely three ongoing crises indicate that much of Florida’s Atlantic seaboard is in the grip of a massive water-quality emergency — except Brevard commissioners voted Wednesday not to employ that term.

The commission bowed to the local hotel industry, which worries that calling their emergency an emergency might scare away tourists. And the commissioners explained to an unhappy crowd that asking Gov. Rick Scott to declare an emergency, and to provide the requisite emergency cleanup funds, might only serve to offend our prickly governor.

“As a fishing guide, I understand that news about a fish-kill emergency hurts business,” said Alex Gorichky, who runs a flat-bottom lagoon fishing business out of Merritt Island. “But a completely dead waterway will absolutely kill tourism.”

The area’s dependence on leaky, antiquated septic tanks has been blamed for the fish-killing brown algae ruining the Indian River estuary. Treasure Coast Newspapers reported that the five counties along the estuary have 600,000 septic-tank systems, many installed decades ago. (The Brevard County Commission supported the repeal in 2012 of a Florida state law requiring septic-tank inspections.)

Gorichky told me that for years now, escaped sewage and stormwater runoff laden with fertilizer (despite Brevard’s tepidly enforced ban against fertilizing lawns during the rainy season) has been allowed to flow into the estuary. Finally, stints of warm weather have cooked up a killing stew of brown algae. With hot summer days coming.

“We should have declared an emergency 30 years ago,” the fishing guide said.

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