Where is the missing 32,000 acres of seagrass?

After conversations with Dr. Grant Gilmore at HBOI, and Warren Falls at ORCA, I came away stunned at the scope of the losses, and the lack of public awareness about it, including my own. We have lost 45% of the seagrass meadows in the central and upper IRL, Banana River, and Mosquito lagoon since the summer of 2010. That’s some 32,000 acres. There are we think, two separate issues; the brown algae blooms that have been ongoing in the upper lagoons, and then the 12,000 or so acres from Vero to Sebastian that has disappeared for unknown reasons.

The brown algae bloom is the same kind that has been assaulting the Texas and Louisiana coasts for nearly a decade. The water being introduced into the lagoon is and has been too rich in nitrogen and phosphates thus providing the food/fuel for the blooms. We are about to see that here on the St. Lucie, although ours has been mostly blue/green algae blooms. The rhizomes that allow the seagrasses to rejuvenate are nearly depleted in the northern lagoons as the seagrasses have been denied the sunlight needed to recharge the rhizomes. What that means is that with about one more year of occluding sunlight, there won’t be enough energy left to regenerate and these seagrass meadows will be dead forever. The only way for it to return will be “new” seagrasses.

In the central lagoon, from Vero to Sebastian, we have lost about 12,000 acres to an unknown calamity. They experienced algae blooms, some that lasted 9 months, but that is not a long enough occlusion to outright kill them. The problem here is the seagrass meadows have died at the rhizome level, and we don’t know why. No roots, no rhizomes, no grass. It “seems” to have stopped growing, but we simply don’t know. These 12,000 acres will not readily regenerate; we are looking at many years of slow colonization, or replanting ourselves.

The seagrass meadows we have in the Indian River lagoon, 156 miles from Jupiter to Ponce inlets, are the lifeblood of our diversity. The IRL is, maybe was, the most diverse estuarine ecosystem in all of North America. This is due largely from the richness of our 7 different kinds of seagrasses. A tropical seagrass meadow is the third most diverse ecosystem on planet Earth, only tropical rainforests, and tropical coral reefs are richer.

Let me give you an example of the difference that it makes. If you examine one square inch of sandy or mucky bottom, you will find about five thousand organisms. Add a couple blades of seagrass to that inch, and it now contains several HUNDRED thousand organisms. Each square meter contributes about five pounds of detritus, organic litter (read “energy”) back into the meadow, that is twice the amount of a mangrove forest/swamp, another nursery that needs addressing. Dr. Gilmore tells me that 10,000 fish per acre is a reasonable estimate for healthy seagrass meadows here. That is in addition to the 400 species of marine organisms that use meadows as a primary habitat. The 2008 study by Hayson/Sawyer determined that one acre of seagrass is worth 5-10 thousand dollars an acre to local economies. Some studies go as high as 20,000 per acre, but even lowball is significant. Lowball is a 150-300 million dollar impact on our local economies.

The Indian River gives to us all and this death and destruction being imposed on OUR Indian River lagoon is getting worse. The estimated annual economic value of the Indian River lagoon is $3,725,900,000. (That’s billions with a “b”) That is a staggering economic impact that affects both the communities and economies from New Smyrna all the way down to Jupiter.  Everyone along Indian River lagoon is directly dependant upon the health and vigor of the ecosystem. We must demand clean water. Every single one of us via our, property values, wages, tax bases, services, recreation or our direct livelihoods, benefits from our association with the lagoon. Essentially, everything about our way of life here is enhanced and given greater value due to the influence of the Indian River lagoon. Every salesman, clerk, realtor, car or boat dealership, bank, grocery store, mom and pop enterprise, auto repair and sandwich shop is touched by, and lives better, because of that money. Every one should be demanding clean water. Much of our economy is driven by new home construction. Historically, we have been the last to suffer, and first to recover in times of recession, and it’s because of the Indian River lagoon.

Seagrass meadows are imperative to the diversity of the IRL, and clean water is what is needed for them to flourish. The “self” re-growth of seagrasses is slow. The other alternative is to replant by hand. This is an expensive ordeal, and comes with its own difficulties. Dr. Gilmore tells me that “farm raised” seagrasses do not readily, or successfully transplant. Currently, the most effective way is to plug healthy grass, and relocate it. Think that through.

Right now, the healthiest seagrass meadows in the entire lagoon are from Stuart to north of the Ft. Pierce inlet. If the rest of the IRL continues its collapse, AND we can keep “our” seagrasses healthy, we could be the only hope for a timely reintroduction of the seagrasses that are dying off. The assault on the St. Lucie estuary is obscene and it is affecting what were healthy seagrass meadows all the way to the Jensen Causeway. If we indeed do become the womb of seagrass reintroduction, every blade of grass will be precious. In my lifetime I doubt there has been a time when so little of the Indian River lagoon, could be so important to the health and vitality of its totality.

We need storm water storage and ACOE and SFWMD are dragging their feet. The storm water reservoirs for C-44, C-23, and C-24 have been approved and funded by CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project.) but when we were going to buy the land from sugar and it fell through OUR projects went on hold. Things would be better “right now” if the projects had gone forward.

What we need is improved storm water treatment and data to make the correct decisions. At this time, there is little or no water quality testing being done at the major stormwater discharge points. We don’t really know WHAT they are dumping on the lagoon. There is a great need for more monitoring of the water. We can’t fix them all, but if we knew where the worst of it is coming from, perhaps we can get a good bang for the dollars spent and bring about meaningful improvements quickly. The SJWMD has been trying; they have diverted water into the St. Johns River, thus shielding our lagoon from some unneeded, and unwanted water. I applaud those efforts.

ACOE, and SFWMD can waste millions on non functioning reservoirs, impoundments, and sweetheart land deals, but they haven’t come off the funds to properly monitor what they are dumping. Are you surprised? We should DEMAND that a solid system of data collection be placed everywhere there are discharge points. They don’t want you to know what they are doing because they certainly know what it is causing.

There are some fine systems available to us. The Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Ft. Pierce have developed the F.A.S.T. and Kilroy programs. Fast Assessment of Sediment Toxicity. The map a mile project in Vero is VERY telling. It paints a visual rendering of the pollution, and its strength. Dr. Widder and her staff have engaged the help of students to further this project and has expressed interest in bringing this program south into Martin County. Like all monitoring, this project is under funded. A collaboration of HBOI and ORCA might bring us a couple of Kilroy’s, one in the St. Lucie, and one at the inlet, but that too is lacking the proper funding. Kilroy provides “real time” information and was supported by the Stuart News editorial staff in October 4, 2011. Editorial: Ocean Research and Conservation Association soliciting donors to continue Kilroy monitoring of Indian River Lagoon https://www.tcpalm.com/news/2011/oct/04/editorial-ocean-research-and-conservation-donors/

At the launching of Kilroy in 2009, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, said, “Recent economic valuations estimate that the Indian River Lagoon provides approximately $3.7 billion per year in benefits to Florida’s residents and visitors — and recreation, including fishing, boating and swimming, is the largest component of the lagoon’s economic value. I’m interested in ORCA’s Kilroy technology because of its potential to ensure these waters will remain healthy and vibrant for generations to come.”

Rep. Rooney’s Stuart office is surrounded on three sides by dead polluted estuary. Where has he been? Has anyone heard from him? Where is his support for the monitoring programs, or was this just posturing for the press? It is HIS farm bills that assures that this destruction will continue. Who exactly is he representing?

Citizen action, loud and lots of it will be needed if any changes are to come about. It is our right and duty to demand clean water. The Indian River lagoon is near to collapse and all of us along its length will be hurt when we lose that 3.72 billion it injects into our economies. The destruction and pollution grows daily, and so does the price of its remedy. The sooner we take action collectively, all of us along the 156 miles, the less it will cost us to reverse the death and collapse.

We need your involvement please visit our website and consider becoming a member of Indian Riverkeeper

We will need thousands of Indian Riverkeeper voices if we are going to force our political representatives to actually represent us, and the minute you become involved, you too have become an Indian Riverkeeper. Volunteer, support and help fund any one of, or all of the dedicated organizations that are raising the alarm and desperately trying to save something worthwhile for our children’s children.

Demand clean water, demand that our representatives help rather than obstruct and enable those who worship the almighty dollar instead of healthy vibrant ecosystems, and the promise of those existing for our descendants.

All of us should use the litmus test of “where do you stand on sugar subsidies, or how will you vote on the issue” for how “we” vote, at all levels. If they are not condemning the sugar subsidies, and the resultant destruction they bring about, they are not representing YOU. Remember this as you cross the bridges and look down upon the brown death, or cruise in your boat and see naked, barren lagoon bottom where healthy seagrass meadows once thrived, the folks we are electing are taking our money and PAYING them to do this to us. We must FORCE them to represent “us” as they seem unwilling to do the right thing on their own. United and involved we stand, divided and uninvolved we fall. Contact your political leaders, and write letters to the Editor, we need your voice.

Seagrass is an important indicator of Lagoon health. (Halodule wrightii, or shoal grass). © Hans Hillewaert.