Brown Tide Killing Our Indian River Lagoon

Conservation, Fish & Fishing, Great Outdoors4 Comments

Trout over seagrass

The cradle of sea grass this spotted seatrout grown up living in is most Indian River Lagoon’s most critical habitat.

Along its entire 156-mile length, there has been an increasing number of people protesting about the current dreadful condition of the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) system. Their concerns are centered around the re-emergence of green algae throughout the watershed. There’s trillions and trillions of them! And unfortunately, man doesn’t make a hook small enough to catch them!

The slow, but steady, decline of our nation’s greatest estuary is a complex and difficult subject to fully understand or embrace. For decades, the IRL system has been impacted by a multitude of negative environmental stressors; now, with a strengthening increase in the occurrence of harmful algal blooms we are witnessing a more rapid demise of this cherished waterway.

Of course, I’m not a scientist or trained professional; I’m only telling you what my perception is. What are my credentials, other than I’m a writer and a fishing guide of sorts? With the help of many friends and family members, my wife Karen and I founded Coastal Angler Magazine in 1996. At the time, it was a free Mom & Pop publication with a strong focus on fishing, boating and the health and conservation of the IRL system. The magazine still thrives today, but its reach has expanded nationally, as well.

What I’ve learned about the IRL system has come from thousands of people from hundreds of walks of life. Jersey Bill taught me about crabbing the Lagoons, while Satellite Beach Bait & Tackle Shop owner Ed Havrila schooled me on the finer points of shrimping. Ranger Ed Perry filled my head with sea beans and flounder.

Grant Gilmore & Rodney Smith

Dr. Grant Gilmore mentors Rodney Smith on his concerns for the Indian River Lagoon system.

Without Dr. Grant Gilmore’s input I’d be missing a few important pieces about how the entire system flows and grows. My buddy, Dr. Ken Lindeman, has mentored me in the relationships between the ocean, the beaches, the barrier islands and the IRL system. And Dr. Leesa Souto, the Marine Resources Council’s Executive Director, has convinced me we need an “annual assessment of the lagoon’s health” to help us follow the progress of the system’s health. This grading system will also help us gauge the success of the many restoration projects needed to correct its demise in the future.

Fishing the grass flats

Sports fishing anglers and fishing guides depend on healthy fisheries. This most recent decline of the Lagoon’s seagrasses are caused by algae blooms. They block out the sunlight to the grasses; over time this will have a huge impact on the IRL coastal community’s economics.

Fishermen like Frank Catino, Troy Perez, John Kumiski, Mike Peppe, Mike Holliday, Mark Wright, and dozens of other full-time fishing guides have also greatly contributed to my IRL knowledge bank. Other strong IRL advocates like Laurilee Thompson, Linda Goode, Bill Sargent, Marty Smithson, Duane Defreese, Jim Moir, Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, John Fregus, Wayne Mils, and many others too numerous to mention here, have also help model my viewpoint of the IRL’s meltdown.

A Reader’s Letter

I’ve received many communications from individuals concerned with the present state of the IRL. The text below is only one example of the many communications I’ve received from individuals concerned with the present state of the IRL. Please follow my comments (these comments are inside the < >) to this person’s concerns, if you’d like a little more insight into this situation.

Hi Rodney, Hope you are doing well. I’ve been reading and thinking about the IRL situation. In my reading on the IRL system I don’t see a consensus on triggers, causes or mitigation approached.

<These super algal blooms (a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae, typically microscopic, in a water system. These blooms are most often fed by high nutrient runoff /reference nutrient pollution.>

From my experience with living systems, I do know that stagnant closed systems die, and open systems that exchange with their surroundings live on.

<Before men dredged and started maintaining permanent inlets, the IRL system was somewhat of a closed system. Yes, there were historical sites where inlets broke through the barrier islands during storm events, but they would come and go with time.>

The IRL is a rather closed system, with input from rivers, runoff, storm drains, sewer/septic leaks, human activity, rain, wind, sun and limited inflow from high tides.

<Agreed. People mention digging new inlets or keeping the locks open at Port Canaveral to clean the Lagoon’s water. This is an idea, but not a good one.>

Outflow is much more limited. So this ecosystem is easily ten times more inflow than outflow; not an interactive system. It’s destined to stagnate and die.

<When the IRL system was healthy, it was one of the world’s most productive and diverse bodies of water. But that was before man started messing with it and draining all of the surrounding wetlands into it.>

Seems to me that while the experts figure out the specific science  we could implement a few simple activities to help the IRL increase the outflow side of the equation.

<Unfortunately, man usually thinks he can correct the problems he has created in nature by creating new problems.>

What do you think about this idea?

I can put together solar-powered floating or moored aerators. These aerators simply suck up some of the IRL water from depth and sprays it into the air. Alternatively, the units just blow bubbles into the bottom water             layers where they are located. Either approach moves bottom water through the water column, increasing mixing.  The spray approach greatly increases surface area of the water and releases gasses. In addition, the sunlight kills some of the toxic compounds. The more oxygenated water helps animals grow and convert some of the detritus to nutrients. This is a well-proven approach since the Roman and Aztec civilizations.

<If only we could have thought of this when the developers started replacing wetlands with the houses we now live in. I believe the cause of the IRL’s decline is directly connected to climate change and over-population.> 

These units are small, consisting of a solar panel, a loaf of bread-sized pump and a PVC tube with strainer. The units can be installed in the rivers, fresh water runoff ponds, moored in the lagoon, on docks, piers and the mile markers throughout the IRL. Add oyster mats and seagrass around these bubblers and we would see the effectiveness within a year.

<Historically, the IRL had huge populations of oysters and clams. Both of these bivalve mollusks are excellent filters for the IRL waters. However, they have been over harvested.>

Maybe also: Keep the Canaveral locks open on high and low moon tides, or add a bypass that is kept open on these tides. This would greatly increase the flushing in the Lagoon. Of course, adding an inlet south of Melbourne Beach would be best, but that really would take an act of Congress.

<This would not only create more problems, it would increase the salinity and further degrade the fragile balance of fresh and saltwater in what is meant to be a brackish estuary.>

What’s the Good News?

People’s concern for the health of this Lagoon system is on the rise. The downside is correcting the health problems of the IRL system is that it is going to take much more political and public awareness and diligence. The solutions will be costly (buy more land to better protect the IRL, retain storm water run-off, restore critical habitats, including seagrasses, clam and oyster beds and replace and repair septic tanks and outdated sewage systems) and the positive results might take years to realize.

I promise there will be more to come in my blogs and other writings on repairing the health of our nation’s greatest Lagoon system.

Thank you for reading.

Rodney Smith

4 Comments on “Brown Tide Killing Our Indian River Lagoon”

    1. admin

      Mr. Chew: I’m hearing good things about your efforts to heal the Lagoon. She appreciates your loving attention. Peace be with you. Rodney

  1. chris

    The solutions are already here. We just need to find the political will to implement them. It’s always nice to think that people will stop using fertilizer on their lawns and repair/replace their septic systems, but the truth is, until it is mandated the vast majority of people don’t see the urgency. The current condition of the IRL is a loud and clear message of how we’re killing our ecosystems.

  2. Mike

    It is my opinion as a marine biologist and aquaculture expert, that the current rant about how people and their lawns are the problem with the IRL, is simply not true. Both Government and public opinion always falls back on this scrape goat when the real answer is not available. The real cause of this disaster will only be identified when Government can and will test for BTI. See the article, “A Real Silent Spring” at (third article in list)

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