The Indian River Lagoon is one of most biologically diverse estuaries in the United States and a critical part of Florida’s ecosystem. But superblooms have recently threatened this important resource. This sudden development has caused a reaction from environmental experts to save the lagoon that’s so important to so many wildlife on the east coast of Florida.
Importance of the Indian River Lagoon
Stretching across about 40% of Florida’s east coast, the Indian River Lagoon is 156 miles long running from the Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County to the Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County. The Indian River Lagoon is actually made up of three separate lagoons; Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River, and Indian River. One of the most diverse estuaries in the country, the Indian River Lagoon is one of the 28 important waterways that make up the National Estuary System.
The estuary supports more than 3,500 species of animals, plants, fungi, and protists serving as a nursery for different oceanic and lagoon fish and shellfish. It has a diverse bird population and near one-third of the nation’s manatee population reside or seasonally migrate through the estuary.
In the spring of 2011 an algae “superbloom” occurred in the Banana River Lagoon. This event then spread to the northern portions of the Indian River Lagoon and into the Mosquito Lagoon. At around the same time, another bloom was occurring to the south just north of Melbourne down to the Vero Beach-Fort Pierce area.
The blooms did significant damage to the lagoon killing 47,000 acres of sea grasses, 60 percent of the lagoon’s seagrass coverage. In total, 135 manatees, 300 pelicans, and 76 dolphins were lost and about a half a billion dollars worth of seagrass were damaged.
In August 2012, a brown tide bloom launched in the Mosquito Lagoon and spread into the Indian River Lagoon. This contributed further to the loss of manatees, pelicans, and dolphins and reappeared in 2013. This period was a desperate time for the health of the lagoon.
In the Spring of 2013, the St. Johns Water Management District launched their Indian River Lagoon Protection Initiative. This multi-year program was created to protect and restore the water quality of the Indian River Lagoon.
The initial focus of the initiative was to investigate the algal bloom that was blamed for this problem. The investigation was anticipated to take four years at a cost of $3.7 million. Other programs that were attached to the initiative included water quality monitoring, seagrass transplant experiments, and studies of the drift algae.
Since seagrass beds are one of the most important habitats of the Indian River Lagoon, the pilot project for the transplant of seagrass was to see if they can move the seagrass from healthy beds to the barren areas when the seagrasses had died. They were also looking to determine why the canopy-forming seagrass wasn’t returning to areas where it seemed that the water quality was supportive.
This project was critical because seagrass is the cornerstone of a healthy lagoon system. It serves as a food source for manatees as well as a nursery and refuge for the various types of fish and other wildlife that call the lagoon home. It also can improve the water quality and clarity of the lagoon.
In an effort to restore the lagoon to its former health, scientists transplanted locally harvested seagrass along the Indian River Lagoon. They did this exclusively with hand tools and manually installed the seagrass at their study sites. Due to the fact that it’s a rapidly growing seagrass, the scientists used shoal grass and placed metal cages over portions of the transplant area to protect that seagrass that they were installing. This step was taken to allow the seagrass a better opportunity to rapidly grow without being eaten by manatees and turtles.
The Indian River Lagoon is federally recognized as an estuary of national significance and is a crucial part of the ecosystem for the east coast of Florida. The health of the lagoon is largely dependent on the health of its seagrasses. Many animals that reside in this diverse environment depend on these grasses to live. To see for yourself how this restoration project has worked or to see the diverse wildlife that resides in the Indian River Lagoon, come to 321 Boat Club.