The Beauty and the Beast: Something wrong is going on!

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
April 2013

The Beauty is Blue Cypress Lake, the most pristine place in our County and Florida and generally not visited by humans.  You can visit it as Bob Bruce and I are leading boat trips as a PIAS fundraiser.  Still as beautiful as it was when invasive humans discovered it in 1895, although based on the aging of arrowheads found there, Native Americans have been there for at least 12,000 years.

In 1915, humans massively cut down huge 500-year-old cypress trees around the lake, but left interesting deformed ones that are very beautiful in their own right – works of art.  Giant stumps can still be found around the lake, and one was moved to the McKee Botanical Gardens as a monument to what was there.  Very little pollution is found at the lake, as there are no major roads, ditches, yards or farms dumping nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollution into the Lake in contrast to troubled Lake Okeechobee.   Fortunately, the St. Johns River Water Management District preserves most of the Lake in conservation.

In contrast, another Beauty, highly visited in our county, is the Indian River Lagoon, which also had Native Americans living along it for over 12,000 years. Canals, inlets, and drainage have changed the course and flow of the waters.  These were the first critical impacts. In the last 50 years, unprecedented development led to water pollution from agriculture, invasive animals and plants, excess fertilizers, oil, paint, medicines, and old leaking septic tanks from our many yards and farms is coming into our Lagoon. Yet, our county and city officials have been unable to pass simple strong fertilizer ordinances like the West Coast Counties of Florida, Martin County, and recently the City of Rockledge.

Photographs by Nanette Notestein.

On March 9th, I first learned that some Beast was killing our brown pelicans, when PIAS member Nanette Notestein, living in Brevard County, called about a brown pelican with a band on its leg in her yard that appeared to be ok but allowed her to get close to it.  That of course was not natural, and I suggested she should get help for it. Unfortunately, it died a few hours later.  It is fortunate that the Pelican stopped to die at her home where she gave it comfort during its last hours.  She learned that it had been banded in Rhodes Pt., Maryland on July 6, 2004 before it fledged, almost 9 years ago.  Cause of death is still undetermined.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received reports of more than 230 dead brown pelicans in Brevard County ranging from Merritt Island to Melbourne this year alone (Orlando Sentinel, March 23, 2013).  These pelicans were emaciated and have heavy parasite counts.

It is not just pelicans that are dying.  Over 55 manatees have died in Brevard and a spike of dolphin deaths this year.  Our richest marine environment in North America has had extensive blooms of microscopic algae in recent years that have triggered massive die offs of seagrass in Brevard County.  Even in areas without microscopic algae blooms, the seagrasses are gone, yes gone, from Grant to the Alma Lee Loy (17th Street) Bridge in our County. 

Scientists have not fully investigated the Beast or maybe Beasts causing this ecosystem disaster in the Lagoon.  Pelicans and dolphins eat fish that need seagrass beds to thrive, and the manatees eat seagrasses to live.  State water managers fear that the nutrient pollution is related to street runoff, lawn fertilizers and sewage getting into our Lagoon.  With the loss of seagrass, the dead manatees stomachs were full of algae, which in itself should not kill them.

The Lagoon is now dying: seagrasses and fish have disappeared for miles, manatees, dolphin, and pelicans are dying from still further unknown causes, and we may not ever know why!  Fortunately, the public is becoming aware of this ecosystem disaster and over 58 Indian River County organizations representing many thousands of people have formed the Indian River Lagoon Coalition and have signed ”A Call to Action” to get local county and city governments to show leadership to make it a priority to restore the Lagoon back to health.  Newly elected Commissioner Tim Zorc held a Lagoon symposium, where experts and the public expressed their concerns.  The County and City governments MUST take new action quickly to pass laws to save the birds, manatees, and dolphins in the Lagoon.  

1.“Somethin’ Wrong is Goin’ On, from the Earth to the Sky, and We Sit and Wonder Why!” Bob Rafkin, Florida Folksinger, 2001

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