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Algae Blooms Changing A Way Of Life On Florida's East Coast

  The Indian River Lagoon stretches about 156 miles along the Florida's east coast. And it's whereLaurileeThompson has her earliest memories.

“I had a little tiny rowboat when I was 6-years-old . . . There were barnacles and oysters and sea squirts,” the Titusville resident recalled. “You know even just the pilings in  the sea walls were alive. . . the cone Jellies used to come in the spring . . . and you get this big green explosion. There were entire ecosystems just along the sea wall.”

Today, Thompson is co-owner of Dixie Crossroads -- an iconic seafood restaurant along U.S. Highway 1 in Brevard County. And it's here where she revels in what the Lagoon used to be.

But now, she says, the Lagoon is silent.

“It's almost devoid of life compared to the way it was when I was a kid,” she said.

Thompson says when she was younger, in the 1950s and 60s, there was no such thing as algae blooms. But now, for her grandkids, it's their normal.

The latest algae bloom in the Indian River Lagoon is called brown tide. It first appeared in July 2012. It lasted about two years and killed acres of sea grass.  So far, it's killed off  some 65,000 pounds of fish and affected about 30 marine species.  

Duane DeFreese, a marine biologist who's also a director of the Indian River Lagoon Council, said brown tide first noticeably showed up in Laguna Madre in Texas about a decade ago. Since then, he says, brown tide and similar detrimental species turned up in bodies of water all across North America.

It's almost exotic and invasive, fueled by human activity, he said. The nearby Kennedy Space Center is an industrial area, though he said there's no real evidence to suggest that NASA anything to do with the brown tide.

“It’s very very much an indicator of a system in stress. So this Indian River Lagoon has a lot of human-related stressors. It’s very vulnerable, It’s lost its adaptability, its resilience.”

Last week, the Brevard County Commission approved an agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for an additional $800,000 to help reduce muck in the Indian River Lagoon.

The money is on top of the $20 million that has been allocated in the past two years for the Brevard County Muck Dredging Project. The muck comes from the brown algae bloom that is being blamed for the fish kill.

Chris VanGorder knows this stress all too well. He said he is one of two commercial net fishers in Brevard County which stretches across over 70 miles of the IndianRiver Lagoon.

He leans over metal railing of a dock. Looking off into the horizon, towards Cape Canaveral, he said the water never used to look like this. The brown tide makes it look like chocolate milk.

“This is unprecedented ecological destruction,” he said. “You know, I'm seeing my career ending here now, because this is not going to recover anytime soon.”

VanGorder recently stopped fishing commercially. The fish disappeared and so did his steady income. He said since he had bills to pay and a family to feed, he now brokers fish – serving as the middle man between other fishermen and fish distributors. 

“When you spend your life on the water like I have, you know, you don't really want to do anything else. And you have to go where there is fish to become a fisherman,” he said.

“I mean this problem is just going to get worse as the summer progresses with the heat. We're going to see mass fish kills associated with the brown tide this year. It's just not a future at all.”

De Freese points to several reasons why algae blooms are happening so often on Florida’s east and west coasts. Septic tanks, ground pollution, exhaust fumes and El Nino all are to blame.

As he walks along the Melbourne Beach Pier, as the sun sets, he points to another suspect: some new townhomes, sporting electric-green lawns.

“And if they're fertilizing this lawn and then it rains, then that fertilizer goes into the system and we know that fertilizer is part of the problem,” he said. “And if the homeowner mows the lawn, and they take that bag of grass and throw it into the system, that's part of the problem.”

He said that it's likely that this time next year, everything will be better. But he adds that this brown tide is not over and as the summer approaches, conditions become better for incubating bigger blooms.

VanGorder isn’t sure he’s going to wait around. In the meantime, the fisherman is playing with theidea of moving his family to Jamaica.

And back at the Dixie Crossroads restaurant, Thompson said she’s optimistic.

“It took decades for the lagoon to get in the sad shape that it is now,.and it’s going to take decades to  turn it around,” she said.

She just hopes she’ll see it happen in her lifetime.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

An earlier algae bloom in the Indian River Lagoon.
St. Johns River Water Management District /
The Florida Channel
An earlier algae bloom in the Indian River Lagoon.

Copyright 2016 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Quincy J. Walters is a junior at USF, majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. His interest in journalism spurred from the desire to convey compelling narratives. He has written for USF’s student paper, The Oracle and is currently the videographer for Creative Pinellas. If he’s not listening to NPR, he’s probably listening to Randy Newman.