Our Mission: To preserve and protect the animals, plants, and natural communities
in Indian River County through advocacy, education, and public awareness.
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Wake up! - It is Our Lagoon

The President's Hoot by
Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
March 2012


Graham Cox & Richard Baker at the IRL Symposium
during the Quality of Life poster presentation.
Photo: Bob Montanaro

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) and its tributaries are stunningly beautiful and central to the culture and economy of our county. Folks are drawn to our environment because, on the surface of the lagoon, we seem to be living in Paradise. However, beneath the surface, threats from nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) overload, algae, bacteria, and viruses have some scientists distressed about the lagoon’s future. Simply put, our county’s economy is highly dependent on the health of our Lagoon, and the Lagoon is SICK!

On February 9, 2012, Dr. Graham Cox, Bob Montanaro, Dr. John Orcutt, and I attended the recent Indian River Lagoon Symposium at the Harbor Branch Institute in Ft. Pierce. We presented a poster paper on our Quality of Life Sustainable Indicators project highlighting potential indicator topics for the lagoon. There were over 200 scientists presenting papers, posters, and participating in discussion sessions (see their abstracts on our website).

Here are some important presentations that caught my attention:

  • Successful efforts to restore oyster beds & wetlands along the IRL are underway.
  • Preliminary observations show a consistent decline overall in the health of the IRL, and in some areas there has been a complete loss of seagrass probably due to the 2011 “superbloom” (these are new harmful invasive algae). Unprecedented levels of chlorophyll a, nutrients, and poor water clarity characterized these areas. This is the complete loss of an ecosystem in certain areas of the IRL! Sea grasses play a critical role in biological productivity and biodiversity in the IRL especially for fish, sea turtles, birds, dolphins, and manatees. Unfortunately this report of seagrass loss did not make our local paper the next day!
  • More than half of the 250 turtles (most were green turtles) captured, observed, and released here during a nine-year study had fibropapillomatosis, skin tumors probably caused by a herpes-type virus.
  • Compelling evidence was presented that elevated mercury causes quantifiable pathological and biochemical changes impacting marine fish health.
  • Strong correlation between P concentrations and human development in the IRL. More pristine areas had less P in the water….indicating we humans are polluting these waters.
  • The invasive exotic lionfish with a voracious appetite could decimate our native species and may invade the IRL.
  • Planted red mangroves do not survive well, making restoration of mangroves difficult.
  • Dredging activity in the St. Sebastian River did not appear to have an overall long-term ecological impact.
  • N pollution may exacerbate coastal ecosystem resilience to sea level rise.
  • Filpronil pesticide used on residential landscapes is found in canals and ponds and may have potential risks to ecosystems and human health.

Overall, the IRL is in serious trouble. All of this, instead our Governor and State Legislature are trying to remove environmental regulations, reduce the budgets of the regional water management districts, take away local control, and have decisions made only in Tallahassee.

“Our science is not getting through to the public,” stated a symposium member, which stimulated this hoot. The EPA and National Academy of Sciences National Research Council in 2000 expressed major concern over the environmental problems attributed to the introduction of excess N and P pollutants into our coastal waters. USDA and the St. Johns River Water Management District reported growing evidence in 2003 that the ecological and biological integrity of the lagoon has declined during the last 50 years due to the decline in water quality.

But here we are years later with sick dolphins and dying manatees. What can be done? Education, encouragement of native plants in yards rather than grass that requires fertilizers, and a strong fertilizer ordinance passed by our county and city leaders: one that requires slow release nitrogen, no phosphorus, and no applications during the raining season, and do not exempt weed and feed applications. Recently, the City of Vero Beach passed a weak ordinance with lots of loopholes that do not stop or reduce phosphorus and nitrogen from our IRL. Nutrient loading of the lagoon is a problem that we can control just as other counties (Martin and Sarasota) have done. We encourage the public to put the pressure on our elected officials, both state and local, demonstrating that a healthy IRL is essential for all and must be protected for social, economic, and environmental reasons. Does anyone want to be on a committee to find and/or write a strong fertilizer ordinance to propose to the county?

In addition, we are asking the 200 scientists who attended the above symposium for their combined best judgment on the most basic indicators necessary to report regularly on the condition of the lagoon - not just the water quality but the condition of the seagrasses, the wetlands, the fisheries, the big mammals (dolphins, manatees) and birds. We want our Quality of Life Indicators Survey results to be presented to the media on a regular schedule so that the public will be able to see if the quality of the IRL in our county is improving or degrading. We have the potential to change the whole policy and political discourse using these indicators to convince elected officials to develop actions that will reverse damaging our Lagoon.

Take our QoL Survey and encourage community members to tell us which sustainability indicators are important to you. It takes just ten minutes to complete the survey and we do want to hear from you: http://www.pelicanislandaudubon.org/qol_short_survey.html

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