Scientists process what could be toxic algae from the northern Indian River Lagoon Photo: Brian LaPointe/HBOI
Florida’s governor and legislature are finally taking an active interest in the demise of the Indian River Lagoon, which runs for 156 miles along the state’s Atlantic coast. The lagoon, once prided for hosting more species of marine life than any other estuary in the U.S., is now better known for its toxic algal blooms and mass animal die-offs.
In just the past year, 68 dolphins, 112 manatees, and hundreds of pelicans have turned up dead along the lagoon’s shores.
“The Indian River Lagoon has become a toilet,” said Brian LaPointe, a marine environmental scientist from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University.
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The lagoon’s continuing collapse has prompted impassioned pleas from citizens desperate to halt the catastrophe and save the embattled ecosystem; scientists are racing to find out what’s killing the lagoon’s treasured birds and marine mammals. Earlier this year, the federal government declared the manatee and dolphin die-offs an “Unusual Mortality Events” and sent federal funds and investigators to the region.
Now, with the clamor from Florida residents reaching a crescendo, the state government is ramping up its efforts too.
Last week, Florida’s state senate convened a special day-long hearing to discuss immediate methods for slowing what can only be described as an environmental train wreck caused by, among other things, a collusion of unfortunate weather and decades of pollution from an inland, freshwater lake and septic tanks in the north. Yesterday, Florida’s governor announced a $90 million investment in infrastructure modifications that would help divert polluted water from inland Lake Okeechobee away from the lagoon.
The lagoon’s troubles extend along much of its length.
In the central and southern lagoon, around St. Lucie County, fresh water discharges from Lake Okeechobee have spawned algal blooms that are staining the water a toxic, Technicolor green and triggering warnings to avoid the water.
The northern lagoon, which includes the Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River, is where most of the mysterious animal die-offs have happened. And there’s no sign it’s letting up. “We’ve starting to get a lot of calves,” Megan Stolen, a research biologist at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, said on Thursday. “We had two more today.”
Stolen has been responding to and retrieving the dead dolphins. She and her colleagues are examining the carcasses and looking for clues to what’s killed them – a task that is more difficult when calves are dying. The little dolphins are smaller, and their mothers don’t want to let them go.
“Their moms are still pushing them around,” Stolen said. “We don’t interfere with that, we let them do their thing.”
No one knows why the animals in the northern lagoon are dying. The dolphins and pelicans appear to be starving, but the manatees look healthy except for being dead.
Some suspect the manatees are being poisoned by an unusual food source: Gracilaria, a seaweed they don’t normally eat, but which has replaced the seagrasses the animals naturally ingest. Some of the manatee carcasses recovered had Gracilaria in their digestive systems.
via Florida Fights to Save a Troubled Lagoon and Its Once-Flourishing Marine Life