Let’s work together to help solve a major problem in our Lagoon

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
April 2016

If last week’s photos of tens of thousands, perhaps more, dead fish belonging to 30 species in the Indian River Lagoon, doesn’t make you sick and move you to want to do something to save our Lagoon, probably nothing will.  Scientists think that nighttime respiration by the huge brown-tide algal bloom consumed the dissolved oxygen in the water below that needed by the fishes to survive.  During the kill, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association recorded zero dissolved oxygen in the Banana River off of Cocoa.  Fish need oxygen to breath, just as we do! During 2013 algal bloom we wondered why the seagrasses, Brown Pelicans, Dolphins, and Manatees died. This latest mortality event shows we have not done enough to fix the problem. Indeed, the death and decay of these fishes will contribute to the cycle of decline because their bodies will release bound-up nutrients into the water where they will feed more algae. The science of Ecology teaches about ecosystems that reach “tipping points” that move those systems into new and often unwanted conditions – has the Lagoon reached such a tipping point?

Dead fish in Brevard County by Marjorie Shropshire.

Unfortunately algae blooms and animal deaths were not enough of a warning!  We have great scientists and Environmental Champions, but many of our politicians at all levels have not heeded their warnings about algae blooms that result from excessive nutrients (some due to septic tank and fertilizer runoff) and harmful pollutants. Our officials’ response is to lay off staff and cut budgets while they feed us platitudes about their concern for the environment. We need a completely new mindset to save our Lagoon, the Everglades, our springs, lakes and rivers if the environment that supports us is to survive.

These fishes are more than just the canaries in the coal mines. Unfortunately this terrible event will affect many other organisms we cannot see, including those upon which charismatic animals like dolphins, manatees and birds depend.  In turn, the economy and health of our region depends on a clean healthy environment. Nobody wants to buy a home on a dead Lagoon, or hire a guide and buy gear to fish where most fish have died. Fish are important in our food chain and in our local economy.  We even have fish in our stormwater ponds that eat the mosquitoes that we would normally have to kill with chemical spraying! Those same fishes feed the birds that enrich our lives and draw birding tourists to our area. Some folks either do not care about fish or the environment or have not been educated about the consequences of their daily activities that pollute our environment and harm the Lagoon. Fortunately, many people care about our economy and our quality of life.   A healthy Lagoon contributes $3.4 billion per year to our community.  If we can’t fish or swim in, what will happen to our economy? Tourism provides jobs. 

We must STOP treating our Lagoon like a garbage dump:
Pay attention to the signs that say “All Canals lead to the Lagoon.” The ditches and swales near your homes send whatever you put on your lawns and driveways into the Lagoon in a short amount of time! We need to:

  1. Greatly reduce fertilizer and herbicide use on our yards and farms, and pass stronger local and state laws to limit their use.
  2. Eliminate all septic tanks and hook up to sewers. Septic tanks are nothing but glorified outhouses that send nitrogen and phosphorus into our waterways. Stop using reclaimed wastewater and ban land disposal of sewage sludge.
  3. Build stormwater ponds to hold and clean all water that drains from parking lots and roads.
  4. Use native plants that don’t require additional water, herbicides, or fertilizer.
  5. Educate the public, especially our children.  We need to follow India’s Supreme Court order that everyone of India’s 1.3 million schools and its 650-plus universities must educate each student about their severe ecological problems, from polluted air and water to disease-spreading lack of sanitation will. If India is beginning to teach their 300 million kids to be environmentalists and improve their environment and sustainability, why can’t we Americans? PIAS has started its Audubon Advocates After-School pilot program where 48 kids come weekly to our Audubon House to learn about our environment and sustainability.
  6. Use public transportation, drive fuel-efficient cars, and support solar energy in “The Sunshine State.”
  7. Stop converting natural areas, especially wetlands, to developments and parking lots.  We are destroying the plants and animals on our planet by taking over their habitats, giving them less and less space every year. How much are we willing to give up to make our Indian River Lagoon healthy again?
  8. Vote only for officials who fund Amendment 1 and the Clean Water Act as intended.  We must elect people who will listen to the will of the people and take the necessary actions to restore the Lagoon.  
  9. Stop firing water–management/land management staff who do their jobs by enforcing rules on issuing permits for wetland and natural-area development. Restore funding to the water-management districts.

Finally, test the water quality coming from our canals and ditches for heavy metals, nitrogen, phosphorus, and herbicides and fertilizers.  Are discharges from agriculture, suburban and urban developments safe for the plants, animals and humans using the Lagoon? What are the effects of using herbicides to clear drainage canals and ditches of aquatic and woody plants? I am concerned for the health of the cane pole fishers who have fished our canals and ditches and depend on those fishes as a major food source.  Can we work together on these issues? Maybe you can volunteer to help write a grant for funding to allow periodic testing of our waters. Let’s not wait for someone else to do it!

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