Tainted Water could spoil mullet run

On Aug. 10, a group of friends and anglers will gather in Wabasso to enjoy an annual fishing tradition. Armed with cast nets, they’ll go out onto the waters of the Indian River Lagoon and fish for the largest striped mullet.

Phillip Pederson said some in the group are commercial fishermen, while others are local with long connections to the water. The whole event is all in good fun, but this year, that fun may be tempered a bit by the quality of the water they will be cast netting into.

By August, the northern reaches of the Treasure Coast begin to show signs of more and more small schools of mullet gathering together. Some of the mullet are about as long as a man’s finger known as finger mullet and they will eventually amass numbers into the billions as they gather in nearshore estuaries and start to travel south along Florida’s peninsula.

Anglers like Pederson wonder, however, how good that run of mullet is going to be this year.

“It seems like many of our fishing patterns are at least a month late,” he said. “It could be all the runoff, and of course, in the northern lagoon, there isn’t any grass and mullet live in the seagrass.”

Pederson said this time of year, he can observe when the mullet are starting to get ready to move when he sees schools of the important bait fish sweeping around the ends of docks near his home.

“The second day of lobster mini-season, the water coming out of Sebastian Inlet looked like it was flowing out of a coffee pot,” he said.

Grant Gilmore, scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science in Vero Beach, said mullet are to marine estuaries as the buffalo are to the Great Plains.

“They are like cows, they are grazers. They graze on plants, algae, bacteria, fungi and microorganisms low in the food chain we never see,” Gilmore said.

Mullet are one of the chief fishes found in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon. They are also found along beaches, up into brackish and freshwater rivers and area canals, and offshore out into the Gulf Stream.

“Mullet have a high productivity rate, converting all that energy they gather from what they eat into protein that goes into all the organisms that eat them,” Gilmore said.

Nearly everything that lives in, and along, the Indian River Lagoon eats mullet.

They are a primary food source for birds of prey and water birds, bottlenose dolphins and scores of fish species.

“Mullet represent the highest biomass of any fish that spends time in the mangrove communities and near the shorelines of the Indian River Lagoon,” Gilmore said.

Typically, this time of year, silver mullet about a year old migrate to the south, where they winter in the warmer waters of Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay and the Everglades. By October or November, the striped mullet push offshore where they are believed to spawn.

Geoff Quatraro of White’s Tackle in Fort Pierce said it’s a bit early to predict whether this year’s mullet run will be what the predators in the estuary require or whether it will be a year where few mullet migrate through the area due to poor water quality.

“Weather patterns may have more to do with the success of the mullet run than the runoff,” Quatraro said. “We made need to feel a decent cold front in order to get the push started.”

Quatraro said in Fort Pierce, the thick of the run occurs in September and into early October. He remembers fishing in 2004 between Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, both September storms, when the mullet run and the fishing was spectacular.

Farther south, anglers are keeping an eye on the detrimental effects of the discharges from the St. Lucie Canal into the St. Lucie River and southern Indian River Lagoon. At maximum discharges, some 4.5 billion gallons of water per day, there is a several knot current pushing all the way out into the Atlantic Ocean.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but most of us are afraid to touch the water,” said Capt. Ed Zyak of Local Color Guide Service in Jensen Beach.

That sentiment is reflected by Pederson.

“I really don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Pederson said of the mullet run.


DIET: Zooplankton, dead plant matter, and detritus.

DIGESTIVE SYSTEM: Mullet have thick-walled gizzard-like segments in their stomach along with a long gastrointestinal tract that enables them to feed on detritus.

KEY FISH: They are an ecologically important link in estuarine communities. They feed by sucking up the top layer of sediments, striped mullet remove detritus and microalgae. They also pick up some sediments which function to grind food in the gizzard-like portion of the stomach.

GRASS CLEANERS: Mullet graze on epiphytes and epifauna from seagrasses as well as ingest surface scum containing microalgae at the air-water interface.

Lagoon facing uncertain future

Originally from: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/07/31/3073154/floridas-indian-river-lagoon-facing.html

Published: July 31, 2013


By SUSAN COCKING — scocking@MiamiHerald.com

Just about every summer for the past decade or more, anglers and guides who ply the Indian River Lagoon have prayed for drought. Drought means less discharge of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary. Lower-than-normal rainfall means less chance of storm drains gushing, sewage treatment plants overflowing, and septic tanks leaking.


But summer 2013 has been anything but dry so far, and too much fresh water is only one of myriad factors that might be propelling the 156-mile lagoon toward ecological collapse.

“Unless they do something quick – like yesterday – this isn’t going to be a viable body of water,” Palm City fly-fishing guide Marcia Foosaner said. “It’s really heart-breaking. It was such a great area.

“I think this has hit the tipping point.”

Throughout the lagoon – a shallow body of water sheltered by barrier islands that extends from just north of Jupiter Inlet to Ponce Inlet – horror stories abound: dead manatees, pelicans and dolphins; sporadic fish kills; once-lush meadows of sea grass now gone; pervasive algae blooms; and foul-smelling, opaque waters.

“For me, sight fishing is out,” said Foosaner, a dedicated wader. “The water looks so bad, I felt like I had to fumigate myself.”

The lagoon has experienced sea grass die-offs and algae blooms before, but practically nobody can remember anything like what’s been going on since spring 2011. That’s when a “superbloom” of phytoplankton overtook the Mosquito Lagoon and northern Indian River Lagoon, and more than 30,000 acres of sea grass died. As if that weren’t trouble enough, in June last year, the area was beset by brown algae blamed for ecological problems in Texas estuaries in the 1990s but never seen before in Florida. The brown algae, which turned previously clear waters a muddy brown, was followed by a reddish algae that creates saxitoxin, a poison that makes people ill.

The brown algae subsided last winter, according to captain Chris Myers, who conducts charters in Mosquito Lagoon.

“November through May, it was crystal clear,” Myers said. “But as soon as that water hit 75 degrees, it’s exploded again. It’s from Titusville north to the dead end of the river and all of Mosquito Lagoon. It’s made what I do – sight fishing – in the lagoon, it kills it.”

But not all lagoon waters are steeped in algae and mud.

For some reason, the area around Sebastian Inlet remains crystal clear, according to veteran light-tackle guide Glyn Austin of Palm Bay.

“The water is clean with no habitat,” Austin said. “Eighty percent of the grass is gone on the flats at the inlet. I’m not sure why it died. There are some fish around – snook, trout and redfish.”

Scientists and resource managers say they can not pinpoint exactly what’s killing the grass, birds and marine mammals, but there are several possible causes – excessive fresh water releases; degradation of water quality; nutrient and contaminant loading; and ocean acidification – or a combination of all of these factors.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce was supposed to get $2 million from the state to look into the problem, but Florida Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

The Indian River Estuary Program is looking at the feasibility of channeling more ocean water into the estuary to flush out the algae and dirty water. Possibilities include dredging a new inlet or deepening the existing ones, or building culverts through the barrier islands. Some people are even hoping a hurricane will blast a new path into the lagoon.

Meanwhile, the problems already are affecting the livelihoods of fishing guides who earn their living putting anglers on fish in the lagoon.

“You’ve either got to tell people the truth and half of them don’t want to go, or you could lie to them, then they’ll see how bad it is and they’ll tell everybody,” Myers said.

“I don’t know that there’s any cure that man can do.”