Toxic algae bloom studied in Indian River

Updated 12:54 pm, Saturday, July 13, 2013

INDIAN RIVER, Fla. (AP) — A federal researcher has found three varieties of toxins from microscopic algae that he says are responsible for the deaths of manatees, dolphins and pelicans in the Indian River Lagoon in the past year.

Scientists said manatees have been eating more of the toxins, which stick to seaweed, because algae blooms have killed the seagrass they normally eat.

Peter Moeller, a research chemist at the National Ocean Service in Charleston, said he still doesn’t know which algae are producing them and they don’t know how to eliminate it.

His lab collected the algae in May in a spot where many manatees were dying. More than 100 manatees, 51 dolphins and 300 pelicans have died from unexplainable causes in the lagoon in the past year.

Florida Today ( reports Moeller’s lab tested the algae toxins on mice neurological cells and human breast cancer cells.

Moeller said the next step is to describe the molecular structure of the three “suites” of toxins, then determine if the same toxins exist in the manatee, dolphin and pelican tissues.

The Indian River Lagoon, which is one of the largest estuaries on the East Coast, has been choked by a thick, brown sludge on and off for the past few years. At times, there’s been too much and other times, there’s too little. The excess algae is thought to be the result of excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous. As the brown tide lingers, fish and sea grass are also disappearing.

The St. Johns River Water Management District committed up to $3.7 million in April to research a bloom of the same algae species that occurred last year and a toxic algal bloom that occurred in 2011.

Earlier this week, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz announced that a select committee will study the potential environmental impact of discharges from Lake Okeechobee into Indian River Lagoon and other nearby bodies of water. The discharges are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There have been concerns that too much freshwater is coming from the lake into estuaries that rely on a mixture of both fresh and salt water.

Brian LaPointe, a researcher with Florida Atlantic University‘s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, suspects septic tanks, sewer plants and reclaimed water may be the culprit behind the harmful algae bloom. His tests on the algae showed it includes nitrogen in forms that normally occur after passing through a long digestive tract such as a human’s or through the biological processes at a sewage treatment plant.

In 2010, Nova Southeastern University used an acoustic sensor to survey the lagoon’s drift algae from Titusville to Sebastian Inlet. They found drift algae had increased by 46 percent in two years, to 102,162 metric tons over the 109 square-mile study area.


Information from: Florida Today (Melbourne, Fla.),

Indian River is a “Killing Zone”

Florida’s Indian River Lagoon Is A “Killing Zone” Of Mass Animal Deaths: Report (VIDEO)

Posted: 06/20/2013 10:38 am EDT  |  Updated: 06/20/2013 11:39 am EDT

Dozens of bottlenose dolphins have succumbed to the “killing zone” of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

Day after day, dolphins floated up dead, emaciated down to their skeletons. Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, considered one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, was in dire crisis. 200024414-001

And it wasn’t just the 46 dead bottlenose dolphins. The casualty list is long and depressing: gone are 47,000 acres of sea grass beds, 111 manatees, and 300 pelicans, reports Fox News.

It’s been described as a “killing zone” and a “mass murder mystery” that is perplexing biologists.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that scientists believe it may be due to one or several causes: fertilizer-laced stormwater runoff, polluted water dumped from Lake Okeechobee by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, climate change and effects on acidity, changes in water temperature and salt levels, and overflow from contaminated mosquito-control ditches.

The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University was counting on $2 million in state funds to study the dead bodies piling up at Indian River Lagoon.

Except Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the research project in May, writing in his veto letter “While some water projects may also contribute to a statewide objective, not all projects demonstrate an ability to contribute to a statewide investment.”

Since Scott took office in 2009, his smaller government approach has slashed regulation and conservation programs, reports the Broward New Times.

He even reportedly replacedexperienced Department of Environmental Protection employees with people from polluting industries.

Scott also recently put the state’s water quality under the DEP as opposed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The new changes would be significant because many are less-stringent than the bare minimum recommended by the Environmental Protection Agencyand existing standards in Alabama,” a former member of Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission told the Orlando Sentinel.

Meanwhile Marty Baum of the Indian Riverkeeper told Fox News, “The lagoon is in a full collapse, it is ongoing.”

How you can help: Adopt a manatee through the Save The Manatee Club, which rehabilitates sea cows and works to protect their habitats.


Turtles Affected

The Indian River Lagoon System (IRLS) extends 156 miles along the east coast of Florida from Ponce DeLeon inlet in Volusia County south to Jupiter inlet in Palm Beach County.  The lagoon ranges in width from one half mile to five miles and has an average depth of about three feet.T

This estuary has the greatest species diversity of any estuary in North America with over 4000 plant and animal species; 35 which are listed as threatened or endangered.  Among these threatened and endangered species are sea turtles and before our study began little was known about the sea turtles found in the southern region of the lagoon.

This project began in 1998 as an attempt to assess sea turtle aggregations in the southern Indian River Lagoon system and is what inspired the formation of Inwater Research Group.  Today, we continue to collect data on the relative abundance, size frequencies, feeding ecology and general health of sea turtles utilizing the southern region of the lagoon system.

During this study sea turtles are net captured from an area of the lagoon known as Jenning’s Cove, just south of the Fort Pierce Inlet.

Once a turtle is entangled in the net it is brought on board and measurements and samples are collected.

Tags are applied to the trailing edge of both front flippers and a PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag is inserted under a scale on the right front flipper.  Photographs are taken and the turtle is released back to the lagoon near the area of capture.  Over 200 turtles have been captured at this study site since 1998 and some of our results have us concerned about the degraded condition of the IRLS and general health of the sea turtles found there.turtle


What we have found during this study is disturbing; in that 50 to 70% of the green turtles found in the lagoon have a potentially deadly disease called fibropapillomatosis (FP) as seen in the photo below.  This disease is similar to the human papilloma virus and is also associated with strains of the herpes virus.  It is manifested by cauliflower like, benign tumors found on the soft tissue of sea turtles.  In severe cases the tumors can occlude vision to the point that the turtle is unable to forage for food and eventually starves to death.  In other cases the tumors are found internally, which can affect normal body function and ultimately cause death.

While some sea turtles are able survive this disease it is clearly symptomatic of an estuary in trouble.  Hotspots for this disease are most often found among sea turtles that inhabit degraded bays and lagoons located near densely populated regions.  The combination of poor tidal flushing, pollution and high nutrient runoff contributes to the detrimental conditions found at many of these sites.  For example, the disease rate among green turtles found by our group in the relatively clean waters of the near-shore Atlantic is less than 3% compared to the high rate we find in the lagoon less than five miles away.  A similar scenario is found in Hawaii where green turtles found near the most densely populated islands have a significantly higher rate of this disease than green turtles found near the sparsely populated outer islands.

Inwater Research Group is deeply concerned by how this disease affects sea turtles in the Indian River Lagoon, but this is not just a sea turtle issue.  The compromised health of dolphins, manatees and fish inhabiting the lagoon has also recently been reported.  This should be alarming to anyone that enjoys the Indian River Lagoon and a rallying cry to stop the further degradation of this enormously important estuary.

We have initiated and continued our project in the lagoon largely with our own funds.  Despite the widespread health issues we have found among green turtles in the IRL, this project has been the most difficult to find funding for.

If you would like to support this project and help us learn more about this disease and the sea turtles of the Indian River Lagoon, please go to How You Can Help. Something in Florida Lagoon is Killing Manatees


Jul. 11, 2013 3:01pm 

Since this time last year 51 dolphins, 111 manatees and up to 300 pelicans have been found dead in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, but no one can figure out what the mysterious killer is, according to a report by Wired.

Whatever is causing the animals to perish works so fast, the report stated, that some of the manatees still have food in their mouths, although it wasn’t their typical food. Interestingly enough, other dead wildlife animals seems to be starving.

indian river lagoon

So far, the only thing those that investigating the case can tie together is that it all seems to center around the lagoon, which Wired noted more than two decades ago was called an “estuary of national significance” by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Several agencies – St. Johns River Water Management District, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Hubbs–SeaWorld Research Institute and NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center — are evaluating various facets of these unusual deaths related to the lagoon.

According to St. Johns River Water Management District, in 2011 a “superbloom” of algae occurred, killing about 60 percent of the system’s seagrass, a primary source of food for the manatees and of importance for fish as well. A second brown tide boom occurred in August 2012.

Something Killing Manatees, Dolphins in Florida Indian River Lagoon

Wired reported that the widespread manatee death began last July, reached a height this spring and seems to have tapered from there. The pelicans began dying in February, and then the dolphin die off started.

“They’re in good body condition from what we can tell, no other diseases or signs of trauma,” Veterinarian Martine DeWit with FWC said, according to Wired of the manatees.

The food in some of the manatee’s digestive tracts, DeWit said, is unusual for them though:

Instead of sea grass, pathologists are finding macroalgae, mostly Gracilaria, in the manatees’ digestive tracts. This type of seaweed is normally not toxic. But, “on microscopic examination of the tissues, we found some inflammation in the wall of their gastrointestinal system,” DeWit said, noting that the changes were only minor. “Our first thought is it has to be something associated with the algae – something in the sediment, absorbed by the algae, or a compound of the algae itself.”

Unlike the manatees, Wired noted researchers saying the dolphins and the pelicans look like they starved.

Something Killing Manatees, Dolphins in Florida Indian River Lagoon

But when the investigators seek out toxins, infections or other suspects, they find nothing:

Whether the skinny dolphins are the result of depleted or shifting fish stocks, parasites, toxins, disease, or something that simply makes it hard for them to catch fish, is unknown. What scientists do know is that the number of dolphin mortalities during the first half of a normal year is around 17. With roughly 700 dolphins living in the entire lagoon, this year’s mortality rate is already approaching 10 percent of the population.

Biologist Megan Stolen with Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute told Wired “the entire lagoon is changing” and that to figure out the problem, they are “[looking] at the whole picture.”

It is still an option that all these deaths are unrelated to each other but all “the result of a multi-pronged ecological catastrophe,” as Wired put it:

Connecting crashing seagrasses with vegetarian manatees, fish-eating mammals and fish-eating birds is not easy. Complicating the picture is that other seagrass-eating species, such as sea turtles, appear unaffected. Other fish-eating species, such as cormorants and herons, are mostly unperturbed. The bull shark population scavenging the dolphin carcasses doesn’t appear to be in trouble. And though the dolphins and pelicans both eat fish, they’re not necessarily eating the same fish.

This year again a brown algal bloom is starting to spread. At this time, some scientists are trying to figure out what brought on the 2011 and 2012 blooms.

“The lagoon’s health had been improving, and then out of the blue came this unforeseen superbloom,” William Tredik with the Indian River Lagoon Protection Initiative said to Wired. “The algal blooms seem to have been the catalyst for a lot of other things, but we don’t have all those links figured out yet.”

Watch this Tampa Bay Times video about the mass deaths:

Read more details about the lagoon’s history and current work being done to figure out what is killing some of the wildlife in Wired’s full article.

Manatee, pelican deaths suggest serious problems for Indian River Lagoon

Manatee, pelican deaths suggest serious problems for Indian River Lagoon

March 21, 2013|By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel

The mysterious deaths of dozens of manatees and hundreds of pelicans may be an indication that the ailing Indian River Lagoon, among the state’s most magnificent waterways, is headed for one of the more epic collapses of a Florida ecosystem in years.

The 156-mile-long lagoon, one of the richest marine environments in North America, has suffered extensive blooms of microscopic algae in recent years that have in turn triggered mass die-offs of seagrass, the submerged plants that shelter many aquatic species and are a primary source of food for manatees

Scientists feared something bad would happen as a result, and beginning last summer manatees began perishing in areas with the worst seagrass losses, mainly in Brevard County, though no cause of death has been determined.

“The loss of manatees has been less than we’ve seen with red tide and from cold stress in recent years. But to me, this is scarier,” said Katie Tripp, science director of the Save the Manatee Club.

“With cold stress, we know it’s going to warm up, and with red tide we know pretty much what to expect. But it’s been a long time since we’ve had manatees dying off in large numbers for reasons that aren’t known,” Tripp said.

Coinciding with the unexplained deaths of 80 manatees as of Thursday is the rising toll of brown pelicans, whose deaths also have no explanation. State officials said that, as of Thursday, nearly 230 pelican carcasses have been recovered or reported this year.

Dan Wolf, a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, said he and other investigators think the pelican and manatee deaths are related, even though there are perplexing differences.

“Manatees eat plants, and pelicans eat fish. The only thing they share is water,” Wolf said.

Wolf said that whatever is afflicting the pelicans kills a bird during a span of weeks and leaves its victims emaciated and plagued with parasites. By contrast, the manatees appear to sicken and die quickly — and, as far as investigators know, display no warning symptoms.

“We’ve seen signs of acute shock and drowning,” said Martine deWit, an FWC veterinarian.

State investigators think that the loss of seagrass has forced manatees to forage on a type of red-colored algae in the Indian River known as gracilaria. Necropsies of manatees have found their stomachs filled with it.

“It looks like they ingest this stuff, and once it gets into their system, it causes an issue with their intestines, and there actually seems to be a reaction in the small intestine,” said Andy Garrett, an FWC marine-mammal biologist.

Gracilaria isn’t thought to be toxic. So the challenge for investigators is to determine whether there is an unknown toxin at work. But even if investigators determine what is killing the manatees and pelicans, there may not be much that can be done to prevent further deaths, deWit said.

The same holds for the health of the Indian River overall. State water managers now fear that “nutrient” pollution tied to street runoff, lawn fertilizers and sewage is driving the lagoon’s ecosystem. That pollution, which is essentially plant food, has been absorbed through the years by seagrasses or by gracilaria and other large species of algae.


But cold snaps in 2010 and 2011 killed much of that large algae, which decomposed and released the nutrient pollution back into the water, where it triggered an explosive growth of single-cell, microscopic algae in three sections of the lagoon. Those blooms of microscopic algae then blocked sunlight from reaching the surviving seagrass, killing off more than 30,000 acres of the plants.

“We are in a crisis mode,” said Troy Rice, director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program.

The question now is whether the lagoon is transforming from a system where seagrasses and large algae absorb nutrient pollution to a system in which microscopic algae are in control. Charles Jacoby, a St. Johns River Water Management District scientist, said there are many examples of ecosystems making that “flip.”

“When they flip, they flip pretty radically,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to flip them back.”

What’s happening to the coastal waterway, which extends from New Smyrna Beach south to Jupiter and is a major manatee habitat, has been drawing much attention, including from dolphin biologists.

“Because of what’s going on with manatees, we’re on alert,” said Megan Stolen, a scientist at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, which documented a mini-spike of five dolphin deaths in February, up from the month’s average of 2.3 deaths.

Leesa Souto, executive director of the Marine Resources Council, which advocates lagoon restoration, hopes recent events finally trigger a critical mass of public and government concern.

“Maybe now that there are pelicans falling out of the sky, then maybe the public will start rallying on behalf of the system,” Souto said. “I’m hearing from people here in Melbourne that, ‘Oh, we saw another dead manatee.’ And these are children.”

Tripp, the Save the Manatee Club scientist, said the lagoon’s plight underscores the vulnerability of manatees, which have been under consideration for reclassification from “endangered” to the less-dire category of “threatened.”

Chuck Underwood, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman, said agency biologists are asking questions about the lagoon’s deterioration, including what it may mean for manatee conservation.

“The answer is, we are not sure,” Underwood said. or 407-420-5062