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BROKEN LAGOON: Fish Kill Leaves Many To Wonder Whether Indian River Lagoon Is At A Tipping Point

Fish kills are just one thing that can be reported on the FWC app. /File photo, Amy Green
The fish kill in March clogged much of the northern Indian River Lagoon with floating carcasses, like this residential canal in Cocoa Beach. Photo by Amy Green

Residents, scientists and business owners along the Indian River Lagoon are wondering whether it has reached a tipping point after this spring's stunning fish kill, the worst in modern history.

The 156-mile lagoon stretches nearly half the length of Florida's east coast and is considered the most biologically diverse estuary in North America.

90.7 environmental reporter Amy Green has talked with a variety of people along the lagoon to get a handle on what's happening for a series airing this week. She talked with Morning Edition host Nicole Creston.

NICOLE: Amy, we've seen pictures of the fish kill. More than 65,000 pounds of fish died in the lagoon. It's been a few weeks since that happened. What do we know about caused it?

AMY: Scientists knew early on it was tied to an algal bloom. When the bloom collapsed it sucked all of the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the fish. What they still don't completely understand is what triggered the bloom or why its collapse led to such a widespread die-off. A bloom of the same algal species a few years ago did not cause a fish kill like this one.

[caption id="attachment_59390" align="alignleft" width="250"]

Map courtesy University of Maryland[/caption]

NICOLE: A lot of people are blaming storm water runoff for pouring fertilizers into the lagoon. And those fertilizers feed the blooms. What are scientists saying about this in terms of what caused those most recent bloom?

AMY: Right, scientists know nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus feed these blooms and that some of the main sources of nutrients in the Indian River Lagoon are fertilizers and septic tanks. All of these things flow into the lagoon and stay there because the lagoon is poorly flushed. It doesn't have a lot of give-and-take with the Atlantic Ocean, and it's interesting to note some of the worst problems like the fish kill are taking place in that Cocoa Beach area where the lagoon is the least-flushed.

NICOLE: There are a lot of residents and businesses that live and work along the Indian River Lagoon. What is the economic impact of the lagoon on the five counties it runs through?

AMY: A study by the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program estimated the lagoon's economic impact at $3.7 billion dollars annually. So certainly a healthy lagoon is very important to those communities.

NICOLE: Amy Green, can the Indian River Lagoon come back from these problems?

AMY: I'm going to take the optimistic position here and say, yes.

You know, a lot of people are worried because summer is a time of stress for the Indian River Lagoon for a lot of reasons. Many are worried the warmer water and afternoon showers will lead to more algal blooms, more fish kills and more problems.

The challenge with a lot of problems involving waterways like this is that often they are concealed from view beneath the water's surface. You might drive across a causeway at sunrise and think the Indian River Lagoon looks beautiful without seeing any sign of the slow-growing calamities lurking beneath the surface.

So often it takes an awakening like we're seeing with this fish kill and like we saw a few years ago when problems in the Indian River Lagoon were one of the things that led the Legislature to take up a bill that passed this spring revamping Florida's water policy.

One scientist told me estuaries are very responsive, and if we take steps to improve the lagoon we'll see those changes in the lagoon. He said we're moving in that direction, but maybe we need to move faster.

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Florida Institute of Technology scientist John Trefry eyes a dredge removing muck from the Indian River Lagoon. Photo by Amy Green[/caption]

NICOLE: Your series Broken Lagoon airs this week on 90.7. Where will you take us over the next few days?

AMY: Right, well, tomorrow we'll travel to Cocoa Beach and Melbourne to learn about how the Indian River Lagoon's problems are affecting fish and wildlife. Then we'll go to Palm Bay and Sebastian to hear about algal blooms and muck, which is another source of nutrients in the lagoon. Finally we'll end up in Stuart, where we'll learn about large discharges of excess polluted water from Lake Okeechobee that are ending up in the lagoon.

NICOLE: Amy Green, 90.7 environmental reporter, thanks for joining us!

AMY: You're welcome.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.