NOAA to investigate dolphin deaths

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NOAA to investigate dolphin deaths in Indian River Lagoon

Photos from Hubbs Sea-World
Published: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 at 1:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 at 11:14 p.m.

Federal officials will launch a formal investigation into a dolphin die-off in the central and northern parts of the Indian River Lagoon as the number of dead dolphins creeps toward 10 percent of the lagoon’s entire dolphin population.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday it will create a task force to look into the dolphin deaths, which were formally declared an unusual mortality event this week under terms of the federal marine mammal protection act.

The task force will work separately from a task force already investigating more than 120 manatee deaths in the lagoon, but some of the same scientists may be working in both investigations and the two groups will communicate and coordinate closely, said Blair Mase, Southeast regional marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.

The dolphin and manatee deaths are just two of a number of unusual events occurring in the Indian River Lagoon system, which started after a long drought and several bouts of freezing temperatures in 2010 and 2011. A phytoplankton bloom covered much of the lagoon in the summer of 2011, then a brown tide algae bloomed in the summer of 2012 and this spring.

The lagoon is a system of estuaries and waterways that lie along Florida’s east coast, beginning at Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County and stretching 156 miles south to Jupiter Inlet in Palm Beach County.

Scientists have not yet determined the cause of death for the manatees, dolphins or the more than 250 dead pelicans that have been discovered. While many people suspect poor water quality may be a factor, no definitive links have been established yet.

More than a dozen agencies and organizations are working together in the search for answers. A state Senate committee was created last week to look into lagoon issues and coordinate water management.

Since Jan. 1, 51 dolphins have been found dead in the northern Brevard County portion of the lagoon, nearly twice the normal number, said Erin Fougeres, a NOAA biologist and stranding program administrator for the Southeast.

“It’s a significant number,” said Megan Stolen, a biologist with Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando. “We’re a little worried.

In aerial surveys of the entire lagoon system from Ponce Inlet to Jupiter Inlet in South Florida, Hubbs has estimated the dolphin population at about 700, Stolen said.

An independent panel of experts in marine mammal health and toxicology concluded this week that the dolphin deaths meet the criteria of an unusual mortality event, Fougeres said. That opens a formal investigative process and means additional resources will be available from a national contingency fund.

The manatee investigation was opened months ago. The two investigations will remain separate in part because the circumstances of the deaths are different.

“We definitely need to coordinate and communicate,” Mase said. “There may be similar factors impacting all of these species.”

The manatees appear to be dying quickly, while the dolphins are emaciated. But investigators have noticed apparent changes in the diets of both animals, with researchers finding macroalgal seaweed-type plants in the stomachs of the manatees and invertebrates rather than fish in the dolphins.

Manatees normally eat seagrass and dolphins typically eat fish associated with seagrasses in the lagoon. But tens of thousands of acres of seagrass have disappeared across the lagoon since the widespread algal blooms began occurring.

“There seems to be some sort of ecosystem thing going on,” Mase said, “and that’s what we’re going to be looking into, but we’re not ruling anything out at this point.”

Stolen said the dolphins seem to be “eating somewhat unusual items,” adding they still need to do “a lot more investigation to say that’s really an outcome or a contributing factor.”

While the dolphins in 2013 have been generally emaciated, a few factors are hampering the investigation, Stolen said.

The first is that many of the dolphins have been “scavenged by large sharks,” she said. “We all know there are sharks in the river, that’s a common finding, but in this case, it’s a bit extreme.”

That has prevented them from finding and keeping high quality samples for testing, in part because it speeds up decomposition.

“We don’t think the sharks are causing the die-off, but it’s causing a problem for the investigation,” she said.

Researchers also are concerned because dolphin calving season is approaching in August. Already in the past three weeks they’ve found three dead calves. Stolen said they don’t know if that’s because the calves have lost their mothers or if they are becoming part of the die-off. If it’s a dietary issue, the calves wouldn’t directly be affected, she said, because they’re still dependent on their moms for milk.

The investigations could take weeks, months or even years.

“It’s not going to be quick,” said Mase. “Analysis takes a lot of time, especially when you’re looking at a lot of factors, like seagrass, toxin anaylsis and water quality.”

Two mass stranding events have occurred among dolphins in the lagoon, one in 2001 and one in 2008. In both cases, investigators never determined a cause of death.


Salinity levels close to zero at inlet

Watch the corresponding CBS News report here:


St. Lucie River Conditions Worsen: Salinity Levels Close To Zero At Inlet

Story by Jana Eschbach / CBS 12 News
STUART/PALM CITY, Fla. — The pollution and bacteria levels in the St. Lucie River and the ocean near Stuart continues to worsen.

New tests are underway to monitor the dangerous and toxic pollution zones.

The sandbars that are usually busy with boaters, are now off limits, coated in a brown foam.

The Martin County Health Department has told boaters and swimmers to avoid the beloved chain of sandbars–think of it as the Treasure Coast’s Peanut Island here, is now off limits to boaters, the water warning is posted for dangerous levels of fecal pollutants.

“We are getting over 33,000 pounds of nitrogen a day. We are getting over 9,000 pounds of phosphorous a day and the nitrogen in our system, like fertilizer, creates the algae blooms, so we are now starting to see those green algae blooms,” said Mark Perry, Executive Director of Florida Oceanographic Society.

Waterfront homeowners as far out as Hutchinson Island report toxic green freshwater algae in the Intracoastal waterway.

“That algae can’t survive in ocean conditions. Right that should be total salt water right there,” Perry said pointing to the map.

Dirty enough to make close to 6,000 residents march in protest this weekend to stop the pollution.

To find clear ocean water, we have to travel close to 9 miles offshore to escape the cloud of brown water. Until we escape the massive plume, there’s no sign of bait fish, or game fish.

“It pretty much creates a dead zone out there which could become a real problem, if its persists,” Perry said.

The plume of dirty water is now close enough to the powerful gulf stream to send the debris north.

“It is a massive amount of force and water that is not being treated at all it is just polluted and it is coming into the estuary,” Perry said.

The plume travels south as well, coating environmentally-protected coral reefs.

“If we went out and disturbed the corals, or spear fish on that reef–it’s illegal to do that…but this is the discharge thats happening and they say its for public safety,” Perry said.

The US Army Corps of Engineers who control the fresh water releases into this region say the lake levels are so high, discharges will contnue at this maximum rate until further notice.

Scientists say right now 30% of oyster reefs are dead and fishkills are coming soon, when salinity levels drop further and oxygen levels are depleted by the toxic green algae.

And every access to the river now in Martin County warns you should not even touch the water.

If you see blue-green algae, you are asked to contact the Department of Environmental Protection at 772-467-5572. Abnormal fish behavior or fish kills can be reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511.

A letter, a call to action

Rich Dickerson, Stuart

Letter: Mass protests, civil disobedience needed to save the lagoon

A pretty picture it ain’t. A phosphorus bomb at the crossroads recently. Now releases nearing 5 billion gallons a day. St. Lucie north and south, the middle river down to the crossroads, a freshwater polluted lake. Unimaginable. Unthinkable that this is allowed to happen and that no one is held accountable for destroying hundreds of square miles of the public commons.

It’s time.

To make a change to this horrific crime against the environment you have to force the government to act. The only way the civil rights act was passed in this country is because the people got into the streets to protest in civil disobedience. It got done. The masses protested in force to stop the Vietnam War with a march on Washington. It got done. The people forced the government to act. I feel that’s the only way to stop the discharges.

Decades of conversation now has to lead to action.

Advocates for the river are out there. Rivers Coalition, Audubon, Everglades Foundation. They all have one thing in common, a flow way south. Another thing they have in common is membership. Lots of people. Rivers Coalition alone has 60-plus organizations representing 300,000 people. Imagine 10 percent of them showing up at the St. Lucie locks.

It’s time.

I call on the Rivers Coalition and the many advocates for the river to take action. Rally together and organize a call to action. Plan days of mass protests and civil disobedience. This is our backyard, not a dumping ground for the byproduct of Big Sugar’s greed and profit. Occupy the water district’s offices and big sugar lobby PACs. Demonstrate loud and far. Be willing to be arrested for this dire cause. I am ready.

I hope it’s not too late for the lagoon.

Posted August 4, 2013 at 4 a.m.

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.

This makes me so sick. “Years of waiting ahead”

My thoughts:

I am literally sick to my stomach at the thought of this being a 10 year project.  While it is a realistic timeframe, these conditions are not something that the river can sustain for another decade.


That’s how much water is dumped YEARLY from Okeechobee into our estuary.  It’s killing every living creature in sight, some of whom have never left the lagoon and will certain all be killed off by the time the red tape around this water divergence gets lifted.

One of the wild dolphin feeding moments I captured on camera. Photo by Lindsey Auclair

Un-fun fact: the dolphins of Indian River Lagoon spend their entire lives in the lagoon.  The population once numbered 700, a staggering 10% have already been killed by our pollution this year.  They’ll all be gone.

Does that sink in?  

ALL of the dolphins in our estuary will be gone.  

The dolphins that are being found dead are so emaciated they must have been starving for an extended period.  You’ve all seen the photos, it’s horrific.

This got me thinking about some of my experiences with our lagoon dolphin.  Every.single.time. I’ve been out on our boat, we’ve seen dolphin.  Well that is, until now.

The last few times we were out fishing, the dolphins literally swarmed the boat waiting for our catch-and-release fish to be dropped back into the water.  They ate every one we gave them.  One dolphin repeatedly came right up to the boat, waited patiently for the fish to be unhooked and let us drop it right into his or her mouth.

At the time, I thought this was adorable.  Now, it’s overwhelmingly depressing.  I had no idea they were starving.  I thought they were just clever.  Now I know they were fighting to survive on a night I was just out for a sunset cruise.  Maybe you don’t care about dolphin (which you should by the way, who doesn’t care about dolphin?), but what about the recreational sporting shop owners who make their living showing off the gorgeous dolphin, manatee and wildlife?  What about the fishing guides who can’t book a charter in root beer brown water and feel right charging for a trip they know won’t produce any fish?  What about the kids who want to go tubing at Ski Island and can’t because of the bacteria?  What about the fish that you once were able to catch in the backyard and now

1) can’t find. Surprise: they’re gone!

and 2) can’t eat. Surprise: they’re toxic!

The list of travesties goes on and on.  And that’s why I am sick to my stomach about about a ten year plan.  In ten years, nothing will be left to save.

And all this in a body of water called “an estuary of national significance” for its once unparalleled diversity.  What’s more, now the pollution from the runoff is causing a bacteria harmful to humans, a toxic algae as it were.   With effects such as; hay fever, rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, burning eyes, etc etc etc.

Yet somehow law makers, the Army Corps of Engineers and even our Governor are OK with this?  It makes me want to scream.


Originally found here:

Years of waiting ahead for opponents of Lake Okeechobee discharges

By Tyler Treadway
Posted August 5, 2013 at 1:36 p.m., updated August 5, 2013 at 4:54 p.m.

TROPICAL FARMS — The 5,000-plus people who gathered here Saturday near the St. Lucie Lock and Dam demanding an end to discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary have a wait on their hands.

Getting the water now heading east to the St. Lucie and west to the Caloosahatchee estuary to flow south instead will take at least 10 to 15 years.

“I may not be around by then,” said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, “but my kids will be. That’s why I refuse to give up hope; that’s why I tell people, ‘Don’t give up. Keep the pressure on.’ ”

The Army Corps of Engineers releases water from Lake O into the estuaries whenever heavy rainfall in southern and Central Florida, and the potential for rainfall, threaten the Herbert Hoover Dike.

Most recently, the Corps began releasing water through the dam May 8, most of it rain runoff in the St. Lucie Canal watershed.

The influx of fresh water has removed practically all the salinity from the naturally brackish estuary, killing oysters and seagrass and allowing coliform bacteria, which can’t survive in salty water, to thrive. Since late July, potentially toxic blue-green algae has been blooming in the estuary, a result of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water.

“The immediate outlook is pretty dismal,” Perry said. “There’s so much water coming into Lake Okeechobee and nowhere for it to go.”

Here’s a look at some of the short-term and long-term proposals to eliminate, or at least alleviate, the discharges.


Perry and other have suggested levels of the lakes above Lake Okeechobee be raised to keep some of the water out of Lake O and thus out of the estuary.

“The water levels in the chain of lakes along the Kissimmee River are kept at a certain height by the Corps of Engineers and the water management district,” he said. “But if they could go above those levels by just a foot, even half a foot, all that water wouldn’t get dumped on us.”

Perry said stormwater treatment areas and water conservation areas south of the lake also could hold more water to help alleviate the discharges.

“Right now they’re not letting any water go south,” he said, “and that’s frustrating.”

In an email titled “Setting the record straight — Lake O water releases” sent Aug. 2, the Corps calls the idea that water facilities north and south of the lake aren’t being utilized a myth.

Canals and other structures north and south of the lake can’t be kept at maximum depths, the Corps stated, because of the threat of tropical storms.

“ … (A) heavy rain could generate runoff that can’t be discharged through the canals, resulting in street flooding and backup of water into yards, fields and possibly homes.”

Ernie Barnett, interim executive director of the water district, said last week about 25,000 acres for sugar in the 650,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area already has been flooded. All of it, however, is fallow farmland already out of production.

An Aug. 22 state Senate committee headed by Stuart Republican Sen. Joe Negron will look into the possibility of renting farm land to provide short-term storage of water to keep it from being sent to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

“Putting it anywhere is better than putting it in the estuary,” Perry said.


Kevin Powers of Stuart, vice chairman of the South Florida Water Management District Board of Governors, called a 12,000-acre project including a reservoir and stormwater treatment areas under construction along the C-44 Canal connecting the lake and the estuary “the closest thing we’ve got to getting some big relief for the estuary. ”

Still, the earliest the C-44 project could be complete is 2017; and that’s if the water district builds the stormwater treatment area at the same time the Corps, which is tasked with overall construction, builds the reservoir. Otherwise, completion won’t be until 2020 or 2021.

The project, estimated to cost between $750 million and $1 billion, will clean phosphorus and nitrogen out of the canal before it reaches the estuary and the Indian River Lagoon beyond; but the project won’t stop huge amounts of fresh water from pouring into the estuary.

The Central Everglades Planning Project, a $2 billion initiative to use publicly owned land to divert more water from Lake O to the Everglades, will take at least 10 years to complete and account for only a portion of the water dumped east and west from Lake O.

According to Perry, the project would be able to move south about 65.2 billion gallons of water each year.

But, Perry added, the St. Lucie Estuary gets an average of about 143.4 billion gallons of water in discharges from Lake O every year. And almost 326 billion gallons are sent west to the Caloosahatchee every year.

The project needs to be included in the federal Water Resources Development Act, which generally passes once every seven years, by Dec. 31. Everglades advocates worry about missing that deadline, since the water district and Corps still haven’t agreed on a first draft of a plan.

A proposal to complement that project and eliminate the Lake O discharges altogether calls for buying 21,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area and building a 159-billion-gallon reservoir. It would take at least as long, and cost as much, as the Central Everglades project, but the two could done simultaneously.

The proposal, often referred to as Plan 6 in reference to an early plan to create a flow way from Lake Okeechobee to the south, also would cost about $2 billion.