Indian River Lagoon fish kill reports continue to rise, worrying officials

‘Those are stingrays — and they’re turned upside down,’ witness says

Barbara Williams noticed an odor emanating from the ailing Indian River Lagoon on Saturday in Cocoa. And when she walked toward her dock at her Indian River Drive home, she spotted washed-up casualties from an ongoing algal bloom.

“I noticed several white blobs. And I looked a little closer, and I said, ‘Gosh, those are stingrays — and they’re turned upside down,’ " Williams said.

“We had noticed the water right before Thanksgiving: I had never seen it that root-beer color. It had gone from that pea-green to root beer. And I’ve just never seen it that color,” she said.

“We’ve lived for 17 years on the river here,” she said.

The St. Johns River Water Management District and partner organizations continue receiving reports of fish kills in the Indian River Lagoon from the past few days, News 6 partner Florida Today reported. Areas of concern are centered near State Road 528, near Williams’ home, and State Road 520.

For months, officials have feared that ongoing lagoon algae blooms could eventually kill marine life and seagrass on a large scale. Ongoing warmer-than-usual temperatures have worsened the situation.

Mike Conner is executive director of Indian Riverkeeper, which tackles environmental issues along the estuary’s 156-mile length from New Smyrna Beach to Jupiter Inlet. He said suffocating, single-celled algae have proliferated for months in separate blooms with “totally different colorations” across the Cocoa-Merritt Island area — the Banana River is green, while the Indian River looks brown.

“Once the water does clear, once the bloom has been beat back, I can only imagine the seagrass density is going to be just shot up there. It was already bad,” Conner said.

“Seagrass hasn’t gotten any sunlight in any way, shape or form the last few months. And I have to wonder what’s left on the bottom,” he said.

Friday afternoon, Conner took water samples at the Hubert H. Humphrey Bridge boardwalk on Merritt Island. He found the algal bloom had reduced dissolved-oxygen levels to 1.5 milligrams per liter — too low to support marine life for long.

“Those readings can’t support life. You need at least three parts, if not four, for marine organisms to have a chance,” Conner said.

Conner posted Merritt Island fish kill photos and video Saturday on the Indian Riverkeeper Facebook page. He noted dead stingrays, skates, shrimp, pinfish, trout, whiting, croakers, saltwater catfish and juvenile flounder.

“Notice that ‘bottom’ species such as flounder, catfish and even shrimp are in the top foot of the water column, if not at the surface gasping for oxygen. At one point a school of small mangrove snapper came to the top, too,” the post said.

Low dissolved-oxygen concentrations have also been recorded in lagoon water in Titusville, SJRWMD officials reported Saturday.

“(Marine animals) are trying to get air anyway they can. We were seeing shrimp the other day during broad daylight, and that’s very unusual,” Conner said.

On a positive note, a cold front is forecast to sweep across the Space Coast on Monday — sending the mercury plunging. In the Cocoa-Patrick Air Force Base region, low temperatures should settle around 50 degrees Monday night, the National Weather Service reported.

Northwesterly winds could gust as high as 25 mph. Tuesday’s high may only reach 58, with a nighttime low around 46.

“Cooler water can hold more dissolved oxygen than hot water. So that’s a good thing. Also, the winds are going to be pretty brisk. And that’s going to rough up the surface of the lagoon. It’s going to add oxygen to the water,” said Conner, who lives in Jensen Beach.

“I’m looking forward to come up there in about two or three days and seeing what the difference is. So the timing of this cold front is good,” he said.

“But cold fronts don’t kill algal blooms. You know, this brown algal bloom that’s so pervasive up there? That has lasted all winter long in different years,” he said.

To report an Indian River Lagoon fish kill, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline at 800-636-0511 or visit the agency’s online fish kill report page.

To report an algal bloom, visit floridadep.gov/AlgalBloom.