Higher levels of bacteria in Indian River

Found here: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/aug/12/harbor-branch-higher-levels-bacteria-found-indian/

 

FORT PIERCE – There is an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Indian River Lagoon according to a new study released by FAU Harbor Branch scientists.

A check of water samples taken over the past year there indicates a sizable increase in bacteria, according the the study.

Water testing has taken place where Taylor Creek feeds into the lagoon as well as near the FAU Harbor Branch campus.

Both agricultural and urban runoff have contributed to higher bacteria levels in the Taylor Creek samples, according to scientists.

FAU Harbor Branch says that antibiotics are used extensively in medicine to prevent infections in humans and animals as well as in agriculture to promote the growth of livestock.

Scientists have found that antibiotics are being released into the environment and have been detected in waste water, surface water, ground water and sediments.

FAU Harbor Branch says that the antibiotics in the environment are contributing to the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

HARBOR BRANCH NEWS RELEASE

FORT PIERCE, Fla. (August 12, 2013) – Preliminary research from FAU Harbor Branch scientists has uncovered an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Indian River Lagoon. The study compared water samples taken from two locations in the lagoon in June 2011, 2012 and 2013. Data indicates a sizeable increase in the amount of bacteria present this year as compared to the two years prior.

“It is important to remember that these findings are preliminary,” said Peter McCarthy, Ph.D., an FAU Harbor Branch research professor who oversees the study. “Our goal is to continue to pursue this work, but funding will play a critical role in our ability to do so.”

The testing sites included where Taylor Creek feeds into the lagoon, as well as a second site close to the FAU Harbor Branch campus. Research showed that levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria were much higher in the Taylor Creek samples, a waterway which is impacted by agricultural and urban development and receives discharges from the C-25 canal as well as the Fort Pierce Farms Water Control District C-1 canal.

In a previous FAU Harbor Branch study, antibiotic-resistant bacteria had been detected in samples taken from Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon (Schaefer et al. 2009). These findings are what led to this water sampling research in 2011 and additional sampling of local dolphins is ongoing. Results from both projects, along with environmental data will provide a comprehensive overview of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the lagoon.

Antibiotics are used extensively in medicine to prevent and treat microbial infections in humans and animals, as well as in agriculture to promote the growth of livestock. As a result, antibiotics are released into the environment through disposal and excretion and have been detected in waste water, surface water, ground water and sediments. Exposure to these large quantities of antibiotics can lead to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic strains of bacteria.

For more information, contact Carin Smith at 772-242-2230 or carinsmith@fau.edu.

Research Groups

Article from TC Palm: http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2013/jul/07/our-indian-river-lagoon-research-costs-908m/

Throughout the 156-mile length of the Indian River Lagoon, researchers are taking water samples, analyzing marine life and digging into muck to try to better understand what’s in the lagoon and what’s damaging it. According to a 2008 study commissioned by the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, $90.8 million a year is spent on lagoon research, restoration and education.

HARBOR BRANCH OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTE

Researchers are studying everything from the loss of about 47,000 acres of seagrass to the health and environmental risks to bottlenose dolphins — 200 of which scientists have captured, examined, sampled, marked and released since 2003.

Brian Lapointe, a Harbor Branch research biologist, is studying the effects of the approximately 300,000 septic tanks in the lagoon’s watershed. Human waste from leaking tanks, Lapointe said, is more than a significant contributor to increased pollution in the lagoon.

“It’s the smoking gun,” Lapointe said.

Nitrogen and phosphorous, which septic tank systems do not remove, play a major role spreading algae in the lagoon, which kills seagrass, eliminating a primary food source for wildlife.

Read more of Lapointe’s research publications.

OCEAN RESEARCH CONSERVATION ASSOCIATION

The Fort Pierce-based nonprofit is trying to raise $6 million to take sediment samples and deploy 50 water monitors, called Kilroys, throughout the 156-mile lagoon.

ORCA has deployed 10 Kilroys so far, with plans for another four in Indian River County in late June or early July. All six St. Lucie County Kilroys are in the Fort Pierce Inlet area. The four in Martin County are near Hell’s Gate, Willoughby Creek, the St. Lucie Inlet and outside the Florida Oceanographic Institute. After ORCA receives permits, four more Kilroys will be deployed in Indian River County, near the Vero Beach Yacht Club and the Main, North Relief and South Relief canals.

Kilroys measure:

• Water depth

• Water flow, direction and speed

• Salinity

• Turbidity

• Temperature

• Wave conditions

• Barometric pressure

A live data feed is available online.

SMITHSONIAN MARINE STATION

Researchers who have been studying seagrass in the lagoon for almost 40 years say they not only serve as nurseries for small fish and other marine creatures and provide food for larger species such as manatees and sea turtles. They also store almost three times as much carbon in their roots and the soil around them as rainforests do. That’s 83,000 metric tons per square kilometer for seagrass versus 30,000 metric tons per square kilometer for rainforests.

Scientists have been have been focusing on the high diversity of species in the lagoon’s environments, including mangrove swamps, oyster and seagrass beds, sand and mud flats, as well as the coral and worm reefs along the Treasure Coast’s shoreline.

Read the Indian River Lagoon Species Inventory and the Field Guide to the Indian River Lagoon.

ST. JOHNS RIVER WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT

Its four-year, approximately $3.7 million Indian River Lagoon Protection Initiative will increase scientific understanding of the lagoon system through:

• Monitoring

• Data collection

• Field and lab work

• Model development

Now in its first phase, work is focusing on:

• Water quality monitoring

• Seagrass transplant experiments

• Studies of drift algae.

By the end of the four years, the knowledge gained will be applied to managing lagoon resources. Projects will be focused on the Mosquito, northern Indian River and Banana River lagoons.

Available online is the 2011 superbloom investigation.

LIONFISH

A new problem, the invasive and venomous lionfish, was first discovered in the lagoon in 2009. The spiny predator has no natural local predators and threaten the hundreds of species of fish and shellfish that use the lagoon as a nursery.

The only research on lionfish being conducted in the lagoon is by Emily Dark, a master’s degree candidate at Antioch University under the mentorship of Jeff Beal, a biological scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

According to Dark, lionfish are widespread in the Atlantic off the Treasure Coast, and their larvae float into the lagoon on the tides. They can be found under ledges and among mangrove roots.

Video of a lagoon lionfish.

Click here to return to the main story.

Click here to return to the main Our Indian River Lagoon page.

Wired.com: Mysterious Manatee and Dolphin Deaths in Florida Confound Scientists

BY NADIA DRAKE

07.11.13   6:30 AM
Via wired.com

Dolphins are dying in the Indian River Lagoon. Only one sick dolphin, above, has been rescued alive. (Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute)

Once a lush and healthy estuary, the Indian River Lagoon is now an enigmatic death trap. Running along 40 percent of Florida’s Atlantic coast, the lagoon’s brackish waters harbor a mysterious killer that has claimed the lives of hundreds of manatees, pelicans, and dolphins.

Nobody knows why.

In April, NOAA declared the spate of manatee deaths an Unusual Mortality Event, a designation granted when marine mammal deaths or strandings are significantly higher than normal, demand immediate attention, and are the result of a common but unknown cause. Soon, the bottlenose dolphin die-off may be given the same designation.

“We have to hope we can find the answer, because until we do, we don’t know how we can help prevent it in the future,” said Jan Landsberg, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Since last July, 51 dolphins, 111 manatees, and as many as 300 pelicans have perished in the lagoon. The deaths don’t follow an obvious pattern: Manatees are dying so quickly that some still have food in their mouths, while the dolphins and pelicans appear to be starving to death.

Mangrove islands in the Indian River Lagoon, a treasured estuary on Florida’s eastern shore. (South Florida Water Management District)

Investigators don’t know if the die-offs are the work of the same killer, or if by some coincidence, nature has produced three unrelated carcass piles at once. The only clear link so far is the lagoon, a treasured and frail ecosystem that’s home to more than 3,500 species of plants and animals.

Scientists searching for the killer are following a long, branching trail; the story begins years ago, when a prolonged drought and cold snap set the lagoon’s resources toppling like a string of dominoes. Now, a multi-year, $3.7 millionprotection initiative has been adopted in an attempt to put the brakes on the lagoon’s collapse, and prevent future crashes. But its success depends on scientists uncovering the culprit behind the ecological mayhem.

Imperiled Paradise

Designated an “estuary of national significance” by the EPA in 1990, the Indian River Lagoon system stretches for 156 miles along Florida’s eastern coast. Though less than 6 feet deep on average, the lagoon is stuffed with more species of marine life than any other estuary in the continental United States. Salt marshes, mangrove swamps, oyster reefs, fish nurseries, and one of the densest sea turtle nesting sites in the western hemisphere are some of the ecological stars studding the stretch of coastline. Estimates suggest the barrier island complex brings in more than $3.7 billion each year from citrus farming, fisheries, recreation, and employment.

But there’s a darker side to the Sunshine State’s eastern oasis. Surrounded by developments, the lagoon has, for decades, been the drainage pool for leaking septic tanks, polluted streams, and storm water rich with nutrients from fertilizers. It’s a wind-driven system, and without tides to push the water around and flush it out, segments stagnate and pollutants accumulate.

Running from Ponce de Leon Inlet in the north to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach county, the lagoon’s waters flow into canals and through locks, twisting and pooling into three main segments: The Indian River, the Mosquito Lagoon, and the Banana River.

In 2011, a blue-green algae superbloom turned the waters of the northern lagoon a sickly green color. (SJRWMD)

It’s here, in and around the Banana River that scrapes the shores of Cape Canaveral, that the animals are dying.

The trouble, scientists suggest, began a few years ago when a prolonged drought descended upon the region. Normal evaporation combined with scarce rainfall boosted the lagoon’s salinity; at one point, it was saltier than the ocean – an environment that tipped the normal balance of species and created a shifting, wobbling base for the ecosystem to rest on.

Then, in winter 2010, a cold snap settled in.

Freezing temperatures killed the macroalgae that normally live near the lagoon’s surface. As these seaweeds withered and died, their sequestered nutrients flooded the already nutrient-saturated, saline water, creating a potent soup that would fuel the lagoon’s collapse: A blue-green algae superbloom.

For nine months, beginning in early spring 2011, the northern lagoon’s waters were seasick-green. The bloom intensified through the summer and fall,at one point covering 130,000 acres. Cloudy, phytoplankton-filled waters shaded the lagoon’s floor, depriving its seagrasses of the sunlight they needed for photosynthesis and life, and stealing oxygen from fish.

Eventually, about 60 percent – or 47,000 acres – of the lagoon’s seagrasses died, including most of the seagrass beds in the Banana River. “We’ve used seagrasses since the 1980s to assess the lagoon’s environmental condition,” said Troy Rice, with the St. Johns River Water Management District, and director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary program. “They’re considered the primary indicator of the lagoon’s health.”

Rice has been studying and tracking the lagoon’s changes in fortune for years.  Without those seagrass beds, he says, the estuary lost its ability to buffer environmental insults. Sediments that would normally be trapped by the grasses were left floating; nutrients normally sequestered were free to feed further algal blooms. Invertebrates and fish that lived in the seagrass beds were left homeless, manatees left without their primary, grassy food source.

In the summer of 2012, the lagoon turned the color of paper bags as a brown algal bloom took hold, further shading and choking off any recovering seagrasses.

Something mysterious is killing manatees in the Indian River Lagoon. (Patrick M. Rose/Save the Manatee Club)

Manatees in Distress

Scientists measuring seagrass coverage from aerial surveys have recorded a 60 percent decline. (SJRWMD)

Manatees started dying in the Banana River last July. First a trickle and then a flood, the die-off reached its peak this spring, when more than 50 manatees were found in March. Since then, it has slowly tapered off. Now, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in charge of investigating the manatee deaths, reports that carcasses are retrieved every other week or so. “At least the deaths from this cause are not showing up as frequently,” FWC spokesperson Kevin Baxter said in early June.

So far, the 111 carcasses recovered have provided little information about what’s killing the gentle marine mammals. Other than being dead, the manatees look remarkably normal. Whatever is killing them strikes quickly and without much warning. Biologists haven’t been able to find any suffering manatees – just dead ones – and are missing crucial behavioral observations.

“They’re in good body condition from what we can tell, no other diseases or signs of trauma,” said Martine DeWit, a veterinarian with the FWC who does necropsies on the dead manatees.

It appears the animals are dying from shock and drowning. Some still have food in their mouths – but it’s the wrong kind of food, if you’re a manatee. 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.”

Searches for signs of infection or toxin exposure have produced nothing. Looking in the lagoon for toxins, such as brevetoxin, saxitoxin, domoic or okadaic acids has also led nowhere.  “None of the usual culprits are out there,” Landsberg said. “But then there’s always the unknown ones.”

If an anonymous toxin is on the loose in the Indian River Lagoon, finding out what it is will take time. If microbes or sediments are hitching a ride on macroalgae and killing the manatees, finding out why, and what, will also take time. “It’s not CSI, it doesn’t take an hour,” Landsberg said.

So far, scientists’ best guess is only that the manatee die-off is linked to the loss of seagrass, though the connection isn’t obvious. But even if that manatee mystery is solved, there’s no guarantee the same culprit is responsible for the demise of the lagoon’s other victims.

And Then There Were Dolphins

Starting in February, pelicans in the lagoon began dying. For two months, starving birds fell from the sky, spotting the shores with their skinny, wrecked bodies. But by the time manatee mortalities were at a peak this spring, the pelican die-off had waned.

And then the calls started coming in about dead dolphins.

Dolphins dying in the lagoon are skinny bags of bones. (Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute)

As of July 3, 51 dolphins have been pulled from the northern and central parts of the Indian and Banana Rivers. It’s the largest dolphin die-off in the Indian River Lagoon system, said Megan Stolen, a biologist with Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute. Stolen is part of the team responding to reports of dolphin carcasses; she says only one suffering dolphin has been found alive, and that he’s doing well in dolphin rehab.

Unlike the manatees, the dolphins Stolen finds are not in good shape. Some carcasses are in pieces and too incomplete to learn anything from; many bear the marks of a puzzling plethora of postmortem shark bites. The ones that are intact are mostly sacs of skin and bones. “About 85 percent of those are emaciated,” Stolen said. “Which is pretty extreme.”

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.

If NOAA declares an Unusual Mortality Event, the teams attending to the dolphins will get some help from the federal government, in the form of labs, scientists, and funding. That should help narrow the search for suspects.

“The entire lagoon is changing,” Stolen said. “We’re trying to look at the whole picture.”

But putting that picture together is not only difficult, it may be impossible.

Hundreds of brown pelicans in the Indian River Lagoon died earlier this year from an unknown cause. (Andrea Westmoreland/Flickr)

“I think, always, the best approach with these investigations is to start with the most obvious hypothesis first,” Landsberg said. “Since these are all occurring coincidentally, is it coincidental or not?”

The scariest option is that the deaths might be unrelated to one another, and simply the result of a multi-pronged ecological catastrophe. 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. Feasibly, Landsberg says, a toxin could be involved — but for whatever reason is not working its way evenly through the food web.

“It’s like trying to do this big jigsaw puzzle, looking at all this environmental information,” Landsberg said. “You could spend forever going down all these different rabbit holes and getting nowhere.”

The different teams working on solving the mysteries are still assuming the deaths are linked: Whatever is at large in the lagoon is exacting its effects on very specific populations, in a very specific area – for now.

Molecular Detectives
A new project could help investigators find out if a toxin is harming the Indian River Lagoon manatees. At the University of Florida, veterinarians and scientists are testing the genes and proteins expressed when manatees are exposed to toxins, using blood samples from 12 animals: Four that have been exposed to red tide toxins, and eight animals that live on either of Florida’s two coasts. Funded in part by the Save the Manatee Club, the project is still in its pilot stage. The goal is to see if differences between affected and healthy animals carry the biological signature of an immune system responding to toxin exposure — a signature they can then test for in the Lagoon’s manatees. “You can, potentially, see changes in the protein levels related to genes turning off or on that are now out of whack,” said Mike Walsh, an aquatic animal veterinarian at the University. ”Could we back in to the idea that yes, this is a toxin, and we need to figure out what it is?”

Uncertain Future

With no clear culprit in sight, scientists, rescuers, and residents of the six counties bordering the estuary are on alert. A brown algal bloom is already coloring the Mosquito Lagoon, appearing earlier than it did last year. Florida newspapers are criticizing the state’s inability to enact tougher environmental regulations and keep Florida’s waterways clean, claiming that “State leaders won’t act to stop summer slime” and ”Gov. Rick Scott does not seem to care” (estimates place the 2011 algal bloom-related economic losses at somewhere between $230 and $470 million, but Florida’s governor vetoed a $2-million grant for the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute to study the lagoon), and applauding the Sierra Club for its move to report “Slime Crimes.”

“Any issues in the environment that are associated with animals or people affect the other,” said Mike Walsh, a a veterinarian at the University of Florida. Walsh and his colleagues are helping with the investigations (see sidebar). “If you have an algal overbloom that kills the seagrass, that affects the fish, affects dolphins, affects manatees — every one of these changes can have substantial long term side effects.”

The manatee population in particular is suffering. In addition to the mysterious east coast killer, hundreds of manatees have died from a particularly vicious red tide that settled off the state’s southwest coast. Those mass mortality events, plus boating accidents and deaths from natural causes, bring the total manatee deaths this year to 672. That’s already higher than five of the last six years, and is more than 10 percent of the state’s manatee population, estimated to be roughly 5,000 animals. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended upgrading the manatees’ listing from “endangered” to “threatened.” Now, budget cuts have put that move on hold, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chuck Underwood. “This isn’t an indication that we know something about what the recent deaths mean,” he said. “It is strictly budget-related.”

What this year’s grim total means for the manatee population is still unknown, but it might take years for the population to recover.

“It’s a huge number, more than any other year at this point in time,” said Patrick Rose, president of theSave the Manatee Club, an aquatic biologist who’s studied manatees for decades. Rose suggests the Lagoon could take as long as a decade to recover. “From this point forward, if we do everything right, we’re still talking maybe 5-10 years for recovery,” he said. “The system is so unstable right now that it’s going to have to stabilize, even if it stabilizes in a much worse state.”

Aerial view of the Indian River Lagoon (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

The lagoon is not without hope, though. Late last year, the St. Johns River Water Management District announced the adoption of a four-year, $3.7 million Indian River Lagoon Protection Initiative. Designed to help heal the ailing estuary, the initiative is still in its early stages. But a multidisciplinary taskforce of scientists is already studying and monitoring the embattled ecosystem, trying to sort out what triggered the blooms in 2011 and 2012.

“The lagoon’s health had been improving, and then out of the blue came this unforeseen superbloom,” said William Tredik, the Indian River Lagoon Protection Initiative’s team leader. “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.”

Initial work is focusing on the northern lagoon, the killing zone that has been the most besieged by blooms. Then, when the taskforce has a better idea of what ignited the algal explosion, potential solutions will be suggested — ideas that could range from adding drainage canals to transplanting seagrasses to overhauling septic systems.

“It’s a beautiful area down there, just breathtaking when you’re out on the water,” Tredik said. “We want to make it as good as we can.”