Death Comes to the Indian River Lagoon

With less than a month to go before one of my favorite days on earth, Earth Day, it seems only fitting that I start a series of eco-posts highlighting the latest catastrophe on the Indian River Lagoon in Central Florida, and most importantly, solutions to support healing this ailing habitat.

Merritt Island
Indian River Lagoon

After living in Mexico and before our time in South Africa, we had a three month homeless hiatus (November 2013-January 2014) that landed us in Cape Canaveral, the central coast of Florida. Why the central coast of Florida? It’s not like Florida has a reputation for being a mecca of mind-expanding, eco-loving, forward thinkers. It’s because my bestie and her family live there. Besides, have you ever been to Florida during winter? It’s quite divine. Add to it an unexpected discovery: along the central coast, there are sweet little pockets of communities that care deeply about the environment and one another. I continue to learn this lesson: There are caring people everywhere if one looks for them.

In retrospect, I’ve been remiss in blogging about our sunny, Floridian escapade. We enjoyed our stay. I was able to hang with our nephews-by-proxy, I read my book at various parks and eco-oriented organizations (like Sams House in Merritt Island and the Great Barrier Island Sanctuary), in schools, and at an impressive, holistic food co-op called Sunseed in Cocoa Beach, we met like-minded people, and we lived just 2 blocks from the beach.

A favorite outdoor activity was kayaking the Indian River Lagoon, one of the most diverse estuaries in North America. Stretching 156 miles, the lagoon watershed covers 2284 square miles and is considered the highway of the east coast because of its importance to migratory birds. There are over 2200 animals species there. The bordering beaches in the lagoon attract some of the highest numbers of nesting turtles in the western hemisphere. Learn more about the lagoon’s vital role in the ecosystem here.

My soul connected to the lagoon by way of wildlife. Scott and I visited a local park in Cape Canaveral and for hours sat along the water’s edge admiring the manatees, those jaw dropping, gentle giants who shyly make themselves known only with a slight bubbling of the water as that awkward, adorable, prehistoric-looking snout briefly emerges and then disappears. The bird life kept me flittering about as I searched to identify the innumerable winged beauties whose paths we crossed. And the turtles? Oh how I love them so. BUT but my favorite sightings were always the dolphins and porpoises. Our daily walks on the beach made for easy dolphin sightings, and when on the river, the dolphins played with our kayak racing back and forth with one another crossing beneath us. These curious, social, emotional beings who hanker for human connection seize my heart with outrageous bouts of joy.

Indian River Lagoon Then…

Florida Wetlands
Grey Heron

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Kayaking Indian River Lagoon
Kayaking Indian River Lagoon

DolphinsDolpinsDolphins!

Indian River Lagoon Now…

The vital, verdant ecosystem of the Indian River Lagoon is now on the brink of decimation, the brown tide muddying its once pristine waters. Death. It has been dying for years despite the efforts of some locals who have vigorously and passionately tried to save it, while others unconsciously go about their harmful ways. This week hundred of thousands of fish are dead. Manatees dead. Dolpins dead. Stingrays dead. Alligators dead. Pelicans dead. Sea grasses (the main source of food for Manatees) dead. A migratory path on the verge of ruination. It is a heart-sickening ecological calamity possibly beyond repair.

Photo credit: Malcolm Denemark at Florida Today

Dead fish Cocoa Beach
Dead fish blown into the end of a canal on Yacht Haven Drive in Cocoa Beach ~Malcolm Denemark
Indian River Lagoon
Photo by Steve Shoderer

The following photos are from Brevard News 13 site taken by local viewers.

Dead fish Karissa Sugar
Photo by Karissa Sugar
Dead fish canals
Photo by John Allen

The video below by the Janson Jones is disturbing and moving. My heart is heavy looking at the death he so profoundly captured. The viewer will also note that along with the dead marine animals there is trash. Our haphazard disregard for the environment creates suffering. What will it take for people to change? How much worse must things get? See more of his work here.

Why is this happening?

While I wasn’t aware of the potentially tens of thousands possibly hundreds of thousands faulty septic systems that border the lagoon (totally unacceptable that local governments failed to institute mandatory septic inspections) dumping 4.4 million pounds of nitrogen into the lagoon annually, I ask who doesn’t know about at least some of the issues bombarding the environment? Who doesn’t know about the problems with boating (maiming or killing manatees among innumerable other environmental threats), overfishing, land mismanagement, development, the run-off from Big Ag -including Big Sugar, wetlands turned into pastures for livestock, marine debris, storms of greater intensity from a warming ocean, and the runoff from individual pesticide and chem fertilizer use? Fracking? Oil drilling? Mining? Florida’s got it going.

The question is not why is this happening? The question is why the hell not?

Given the interminable onslaught to this delicate system, why hasn’t it happened sooner? How much harmful input does it take to bring an ecosystem to its trembling knees? It’s as if there is a cadre of Floridians with the sole purpose of working to destroy the very earth that supports them. The locals who fight to protect these waters are caught in a proverbial rip current of apathy from the many contributors to this problem.

Long ago I heard a priest say, “when you point a finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” Sure, while it’s easy to point a finger at Florida, no state in this great US is free from citizens contributing to environmental abuses, to destroying the very waters and soil that sustain them. Even here in fairly conscious Southern Oregon we live near a creek. I have a neighbor who sprays Roundup on his virtually perfect lawn. That neighbor has a storm drain at the base of his property. The math is simple:

humans + toxic pesticides + chemical fertilizers =
pretty lawn – death to biodiversity

Still, that math problem seems too complex for many Americans to reconcile. Did you know that the US uses 1 BILLION pounds of pesticides annually? No matter. That one little lawn is not a contributing factor. It’s the other 120 million lawns causing this problem.

For the short time we lived in Florida, we encountered a ridiculous amount of pesticide (ab)use. One worker from Cape Canaveral public utilities sprayed roundup at the park WHILE we were watching manatees. The park bordered the water. When we told him our concerns about poisoning the animals in the water, he responded with, “I’m not spraying the water.” There was a you silly goose tone to his voice.

I find it curious when the so-called tree-huggers are treated in a condescending way by the eco-abusers. It’s a clear-cut case of perps victimizing the whistleblowers, of ignorant lashing out at mindful. Frankly, I do love trees and so much that I occasionally love them up with a hug. It’s when they hug back with all that delicious oxygen that I’m reminded they wait patiently for care and respect.

Notwithstanding the toxicity to soil, water, animals and dare I say to humans, the central coast of Florida is harming their pollinator population. I’ll be writing more about pollinators in the coming weeks.

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While we were living in Florida, I met a turtle rescuer on the beach inspecting a dead turtle. She told me how they recently found a dead baby turtle. When they opened the little guy up to do a necropsy, they found…wait for it…a cigarette butt. C’mon. A dead baby turtle!

I tried to run on the beach daily in Cape Canaveral, but because there was litter, I stopped every few feet to pick it up. I have a physical incapability to see litter and not pick it up. My run turned into a beach litter-pickup-fast walk. It was like my own special kind of eco-aerobics. So many cigarette butts and too many balloons (nothing says party like a dead turtle) and way too many bits of plastic. Did you know one straw can kill a seal? Just one little straw for that one little drink. Straw on the beach=Dead seal. Humans impact the environment. If only we could collectively impact in a more positive way. Despite the devastating news. I believe we can, but not with the current officials in place.

Fire Offending Florida Government Officials

Read this very important comment from a Brevard county spokesperson, Don Walker: “We know that this is a public nuisance. All the fish are going to be taken to the landfill and buried …We’re not going to be able to collect them all.”

Now I see the light! This whole problem boils down to inconsiderate fish thoughtlessly choosing the Indian River Lagoon as their place of mass suicidal extinction.

With the Indian River Lagoon kill-off government officials are concerned about how this will impact the commercial aspects of the lagoon like fishing and tourism. Whereas I’m concerned Florida has government officials who have their heads so far up their asses they’re missing the point. Fishing is dead in the water with the fish. Where are the government officials who are concerned about why death has come to the Indian River Lagoon? Of course this will impact tourism. It makes me wonder how one day the extinction of humans by humans will impact tourism.

Article upon article I’m reading about how officials are really not sure about the cause of this kill-off.  These are the same officials who likely encourage climate change denial because it’s highly inconvenient to the fishing and tourism industries, to their pocketbooks. Fire.These.Officials.Florida.

Fire Offending Florida Government Officials

Start with Sen. Joe Negron who opposed mandatory inspections of septic systems and who is slated to be the Senate President from 2017-2018. Negron didn’t believe that government should “come to people’s property and inspect their septic tanks and inform them they have a $20,000 bill to replace a septic tank or have to pay a giant fee to hook up to sewer lines.” And that lack of regulation has caused great harm. Pay now or pay later, but fire Negron now. Such a lack of insight highlights his inability to be a leader. I would be wrong to not add that ultimately individuals are responsible for doing the right thing. All those seepy septic systems are the result of individuals in households allowing the systems to fail thus contributing directly to this problem. I see a lot of pointing fingers poking everyone else in the eye. I think that priest was onto something.

Find out which real estate agents opposed the mandatory tank inspections bill and fire them too, because prior to 2012 there was a mandatory inspection law on the books. Because that law would have stalled closings or made house sales more expensive for sellers, the Florida Realtors backed a bill to put the kibosh on the inspections.

I tried to follow the trajectory of the septic inspection bill. Admittedly, my head is spinning. This bill has been weaving in and out of the Florida legislature for a few years. It looks like the most recent version came up December 2015, the last action was March 2016, and it “died on the calendar.” You can get more information here.

Locals comment

Scooting through Facebook posts, I collected comments from locals – folks who believe in doing the right thing by the environment. Folks who give me hope.

“It is heartbreaking! My son mentioned how much the river looks like chocolate milk today on our ride over the causeway (from the brown tide). The scent of death is beginning to permeate the air beachside and is a constant reminder of how we’ve messed up so much along this beautiful coast: (may awareness grow and a deep change in culture move forth to help heal the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program and other waters in trouble. For his birthday afternoon, my son wants to join in a local rally planned to help bring up awareness.”
~Mandy Comstock Baily

“While there are a lot of good folks there trying to change our approach, sadly, most humans seem to view it primarily as a commercial & recreational resource, or at worst as their personal “backyard” that they can foul as they like.”
~ Scott (that’s the hubby)

“It appears that every living creature in our Indian River Lagoon died suddenly this week. This is extremely important to Central Florida residents but I suspect that the effects will be widespread. Please read the following information and act in any way that you can.”
~Marie Montemurno

“I sincerely hope that everyone, especially those in Florida, will take the time to read and share this info. Is everyone fully realizing the severity of this situation with our Indian River Lagoon here on the east coast of Florida? I hope so, but just in case here’s a glimpse: Our Indian River Lagoon is being poisoned and its ecosystem is in danger. Animals and plants of all kinds are dying in mass numbers. This is not healthy! This is not normal!

This isn’t just a fish kill. Tons of different species of fish, crustaceans, alligators, dolphins, birds, and plants are dying. Fishermen’s live bait are dying upon hitting the water. We are coming to a point of no return if something isn’t done. If this situation is not addressed, we may cause extinction to an entire, vital ecosystem….let’s come together to try to recover our Indian River Lagoon.”
~Amanda Rashid

How can we remedy this tragic situation?

  1. Care. So simple, yet a concept often ignored given our busy lives, our tendencies for myopia, and the too many woes-so little time conundrum.
  2. Watch the beautiful documentary below (15 minutes) about the problem and solutions – produced and directed by Dylan Hansen.
  3. If you’re local, go to Lagoon Fest – click here.
  4. Save the lagoon click here.
  5. Here are a few local resources (thank you Amanda Rashid) and upcoming events:
    **A list of areas where you can take part in a cleanup. Save Our Lagoon Facebook page that shares info about the lagoon and events.
    **Brevard is Beautiful!! Save Our Lagoon!! Public Facebook group that shares info about the lagoon and events.
    **Save Our Lagoon & Local Waterways event 4/3 in Palm Bay to become proactive in response to the IRL situation – click here for more in.
    **Rally lined up for 3/26 in Cocoa Beach to bring awareness to the IRL -click here. And like the accompanying page.
  6. Check out the Indian Riverkeeper’s site.
  7. Read this article from Florida today. At the bottom see information to call your government officials – ah hem Marco Rubio.
  8. Take that anger and frustration and vote the heck out of it. Come November, help politicians create a mass extinction of themselves.
  9. If you can’t help, at the very least do no harm.
  10. Check out this article and powerful, eye-opening photos by Janson Jones, a local eco-photographer working to shed a light on the recent massive fish kill-off: Surveying the March 2016 Fish Kill Event in Brevard County and this article on the recent rally: Stand up for our Lagoons Rally in Cocoa Beach.

Please Florida et al, don’t sweep these dead fish under the current and go about business as usual. Make this an opportunity to create real change. Fire the elected officials who have avoided this problem, create a xeriscape yard so you don’t have to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, stop supporting Big Ag (Big Sugar included), consider moving toward a plant-based diet, take control of your personal environment in a way that inspires and creates abundance in the natural world.

You can do this. We can do this. We are all connected through the soil upon which we walk, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. When one part of this system is in trouble, the entire system is in jeopardy. When we work together to heal the earth, we heal ourselves.

If you need a dose of relief, see more rally photos at Janson Jones’ post Stand Up for Our Lagoons Rally. I could hear myself exhale witnessing a community joining together, people who care about this problem. These are my peeps, and they give me hope.

Indian River Lagoon Rally Cocoa Beach Florida
Stand for our Lagoons Rally in Cocoa Beach

Photo credit Janson Jones
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How many wakeup calls will it take before the alarm breaks, rendering us deafened by the silence?
~Kenda Swartz Pepper

Sooner or later, we will have to recognise that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.
~Evo Morales

I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth.
~Stephen Hawking

If you are unwilling or unable to speak up, there are still many ways you can stand up. There is no time like right now-this-very-second to take a stand.
~Kenda Swartz Pepper

Quote abut life

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If you use any images, please provide credit to the photographer.

18 Comments

  1. Kudos for the post. Very informative and encompassing much of what’s going on. I’m with you with your concern! Communicating and testifying what we’re seeing is only one small step in finding a solution, but it is an incredibly important one. My thanks to you ~

    1. Kenda

      Thank you, Janson, and ditto on your posts!

      Your photos are powerful and your knowledge extensive. I have a surge of hope that many closed eyes will open. I agree, building the awareness is only one small step in this process.

      Power to the people doing the right thing.

  2. Kenda

    Thanks, Patrick. You’ll notice yours is the only comment. I think my eco-rants turn off some folks. 🙂 I appreciate the comment.

    I’m not even sure what to say about Arizona having a better handle than Florida on their septic issues. I better just keep my fingers off the keyboard. 😉

    1. It’s not MUCH better, but a little. At least in certain counties. Eco rants show where to find your passion! Sort of like me and the politics of poverty, or me and a bad experience at just about anywhere.

      1. Kenda

        That’s a pleasant surprise about Arizona. Surprise being the operative word. 😉

        I guess yours is a form of eco ranting as well – economics vs ecology. Aren’t those two subjects tied closely together anyway? I like your rants about bad experiences. They make for good reading, and are much richer and have more meaning than boring ole Yelp reviews. btw: I had to remove the CommentLuv plugin b/c it was causing issues. You are welcome to include recent post links if you’d like.

        1. They are close, as one assists the other, and both are so obvious as to infuriate and result in addiction issues.
          And there is a Surprise, AZ, actually – as if to incorporate everyone’s reaction.
          (I didn’t realize recent posts were coming up in my comments. That’s cool!)

          1. Kenda

            Well said and funny business about Surprise, AZ!

            Yes, recent post links where showing up with the CommentLuv but no longer. You’re welcome to include in replies. Just a small token of appreciation and support.

  3. Thank you for such a well-worded post on something many of us (not living in Florida obviously) would not have known about. It’s terrible, but good to know what action we can all take. Even Arizona seems to have a handle on their septic/groundwater issues better than this.

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