Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC) is committed to protecting the natural habitats upon which sea turtles depend, while also recognizing the interconnectedness of all habitats and the role they play in our ecosystem. Many species of plants and animals make their home in the coastal and estuarine waters of Florida. Coastal economies are dependent on these natural resources, Floridians take great pride in these waters and tourists from all over the world come to visit them. But one of these bodies of water is in serious trouble.
The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) spans 150 miles along Florida’s Atlantic Coast from the Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County. It is an estuary, a body of water where freshwater mixes with ocean saltwater. This waterway is one of the most biologically diverse estuarine systems in the United States, home to more than 4,300 different species of plants and animals—including 35 that are threatened or endangered.
Over the past year, a record number of dolphins, manatees and pelicans have turned up dead in this waterway. Scientists have seen large amounts of algae blooms in the waterway, some of them toxic, and there is a clear imbalance in the ecosystem. Almost 47,000 acres of vital lagoon sea grass have died from algae blooms since 2011. Biologists liken this trend to a rain forest dying. In some areas, the water has turned from clear blues and greens to a coffee-colored dark brown and people have been advised to stay out of the water. While people have this choice, the wildlife does not.
Although the exact cause of the Lagoon’s problems is unknown, there are a few possible culprits. To prevent Lake Okeechobee from overflowing or compromising the dike around the lake, water from the lake is released into a canal that drains into the IRL. Water from Lake Okeechobee carries high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which could be causing algae blooms. Inadequate sewage treatment, street runoff and effluent from septic tanks in the area could also be affecting the water. There are approximately 237,000 septic tanks in just three of the counties that sit on the Lagoon.
So far, scientists have not identified any direct effect on sea turtles that occupy the Lagoon, but STC is closely monitoring the situation. Sea turtles of various age classes utilize the Lagoon for foraging and as a developmental habitat. Ecosystems such as the IRL are complicated and overall health is determined by many interacting variables. Educating the public and elected officials about this crisis is imperative for the recovery and long-term survival of the IRL.
Recently on National Estuaries Day, STC partnered with the Barrier Island Sanctuary Management and Education Center (BIC) in “Hands Across the Lagoon,” an event to help bring attention to the estuary’s fragile state. People in all five neighboring counties located on the Lagoon were asked to stand up for its protection and restoration. Thousands came out and held hands across bridges over the Lagoon showing their support. Click here to watch a cool video about the event! Following the event, participants were invited to the BIC for environmental education activities to learn more about our country’s most diverse estuary.
While small steps have been made toward improving the health of the Lagoon, we encourage everyone to get involved in the process. The first place to start is to know what is happening. Check out these upcoming events to learn more about the crisis:
The Brevard County Board of County Commission is holding a workshop to find solutions to the current IRL issue on Thursday, October 17th at 6:00 p.m. at the Ted Moorhead Lagoon House in Palm Bay. CLICK HERE to see the agenda and speakers for the workshop.
The Brevard Naturalist Program is holding an information session on November 2 from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the Cocoa Beach Public Library, followed by a paddling trip to the Thousand Islands. CLICK HERE for more info or register for the event HERE.
STC at the BIC is hosting a special stewardship workshop, “Recipes to Save the Indian River Lagoon” on Saturday, November 16th. The workshop includes guest expert speakers sharing what has been happening to life in the IRL and how we can help restore it, a spoil island marine debris clean up, and a shoreline restoration mangrove planting. See this flyer for more info and how to sign up!