MELBOURNE, Fla. – Dropping a claw-like device into the Indian River Lagoon that resembles those found in arcade games, Nayan Mallick scooped up a mound of black sludge and lifts it into a boat.
His colleague, Danielle Juzwick, then ran her hand through the gooey substance, pointing out the leaves, twigs and small shells found in the black slime.
"It's really nasty, gross stuff," Juzwick said. "It's soft, kind of like Play-Doh you played with as a kid."
The two graduate students from the Florida Institute of Technology's biological oceanography program are studying the foul-smelling substance, known as muck, in hopes of finding ways to combat it and restore the health of the Indian River Lagoon.
"It wasn't like this before the 1950s," Mallick said, pointing out that the muck problem has coincided with population growth along the Space Coast.
Scientists believe stormwater contaminants, such as lawn clippings and fertilizers, cause algae blooms to occur. Dying algae contributes to the muck, leading to fish kills and other harm to marine life.
"It kills everything because there's no oxygen," Juzwick said.
In 2016, Brevard County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help fund a $320 million cleanup of the waterway.
About two-thirds of that money is earmarked for dredging operations that vacuum up muck from parts of the Indian River Lagoon.
Juzwick and Mallick are part of a Florida Tech team that is collecting data to determine whether life is likely to return to the locations that have been dredged.
After gathering muck samples from the lagoon, the graduate students place them under microscopes at their lab at Florida Tech in search of infauna -- tiny animals that are critical to a healthy ecosystem.
"All of those little infauna are what fish feed on," Juzwick said. "So whenever there is no infauna, it means there's not going to be any fish. When there's no fish, there's no higher predators."
She and Mallick typically find no signs of infauna in muck samples collected from areas of the lagoon that have not been dredged, such as Crane Creek.
Sediment taken from the areas where dredging has occurred, however, appears to show conditions for life are improving, they told News 6.
"When I was analyzing my data, it shows the organic content is really reducing due to the dredging," Mallick said.
"We are seeing a little bit of infauna and clams and bivalves showing up," Juzwick said. "There's not a lot, but it’s more than what we saw three years ago."
In addition to collecting muck samples, the Florida Tech researchers are gathering water quality data throughout the Indian River Lagoon and monitoring the growth of seagrass.
"(Seagrass) is a very critical habitat for many invertebrates, fish and other predators when they're in juvenile stages," Mallick said.
"Seagrass doesn't really have any kind of defense when it comes to muck. Muck just comes and lays over it," said Juzwick, noting that manatees also devour the aquatic plants. "The more seagrass you have, the better the water quality is going to be."
Although many experts believe it will take many years and millions of dollars to restore the health of the Indian River Lagoon, the Florida Tech students said they are already seeing improvement in some previously problematic areas.
"Infaunas are coming back, which is a good sign because when there is life, there is hope," Mallick said.