April 12 2016
The Indian River Lagoon is an impressive ecosystem spanning over 150 miles of Florida’s coast east of Orlando. Over the years, many have flocked to the lagoon for its world-class fishing, seagrass beds, clear waters, manatees and wildlife.
The Indian and Banana Rivers are partially fresh- and saltwater and serve as a drainage basin for the surrounding area. The exchange between fresh- and saltwater is one thing that makes the Lagoon such a biologically diverse place.
However, the Lagoon isn’t without its challenges, which have manifested themselves quite clearly in the last few years.
Some of these developments are devastating for fishing charters around Orlando. While there are still spots holding Redfish, Sheepshead and Speckled Trout, many are concerned that water quality and fish in the Lagoon will continue declining.
Brown tide blooms deplete sea grass and oxygen in the water and put strain on fish underneath…
Brown tide is a type of algae that actually occurs naturally offshore and can be common in waters with high salinity. The organisms are non-toxic, but when the alga blooms, it can produce mucus that prevents shellfish from feeding.
The blooms also deplete oxygen in the water fish need to breathe. Although the heat of the day can dilute the algae or push it away, the real challenge is at night when the algae suck up all of the oxygen in the water. The early morning hours is when these oxygen levels are at their lowest.
Brown tide can also affect water clarity and therefore pose a risk to sea grass beds, which are a vital habitat for shrimp, crabs and other food sources for many fish. Seagrass also provides cover from predators and a primary food source for the Florida Manatee.
Brown tide has been in the Lagoon for several years, but blooms started occurring in 2012 and have led to sometimes devastating fish kills and loss of seagrass beds in recent years.
How did the brown tide get this bad?
Many residents, businesses and scientists agree the brown tide problem has been building for several years, even decades through a combination of factors.
First are human-induced…
Throughout the 20th century, the Indian River Lagoon region has been a popular vacation and retirement spot. The Kennedy Space Center and Patrick Air Force Base, along with cruise ships, are an integral part of the area’s economy.
With this development and growth in population came more and more pollution from septic tanks, stormwater runoff, lawn fertilizers and more. Highways over the Lagoon have disrupted the flow that is critical for maintaining the right balance between fresh- and saltwater.
Also, drainage canals built during the early to mid- 20th century and substantial commercial development of the surrounding area have led to a dramatic increase in stormwater runoff into the lagoon. Many creeks and small rivers have literally been choked off from the ocean because of drainage canals.
Next, weather patterns in recent years have led to more brown tide and bigger risks to fish in the Lagoon.
Drought coupled with a record cold winter in 2010 created conditions for some pretty significant algae blooms in 2011. In early 2016, a major fish kill occurred around Titusville and the northern part of the Lagoon directly east from Orlando.
Scientists believe this latest outbreak was due in part to that year’s El Nino pattern bringing additional rain to the Lagoon. This rain of course led to runoff which clouds the water, leading to seagrass loss and brown tide.
These algae blooms can get worse during warmer months, but how severe really depends on temperature, wind, rain and other factors.
What can be done to help the Indian River Lagoon?
Many area residents along with scientists, fishing charters and other business owners are beginning to take action. One effort involves cleaning up muck caused by algae blooms and then removing dead fish. Another effort by different community groups and environmental agencies is replanting lost seagrass beds.
Scientists and other interested parties are always collecting data on fish populations, water temperature, oxygen levels and more to better understand issues in the Lagoon.
Despite challenges to the Indian River Lagoon, Orlando fishing charters like Capt. Mark Wright still can attest to the resilience and vitality of the Lagoon. Similar water bodies have faced challenges like these in the past and bounced back. Through an engaged community and efforts between private and public organizations, the Lagoon is finally receiving some much deserved attention.
We’re hopeful it isn’t too little, too late.