9 investigates dolphin, manatee deaths in Indian River Lagoon

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BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - There is something very wrong with the Indian River Lagoon. Since the first of the year, 60 bottlenose dolphins have died, and one more that was rescued is expected to recover.

In all, 280 manatees have died in the waters of Brevard County in the last 12 months, sea grass has died, 250 brown pelicans have died and so far, no single cause has been uncovered.

"People always want to point their finger at the problem and come up with a quick solution, but when you're dealing with natural systems, that's usually not the way it happens," said Troy Rice of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program.

Earlier this month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an Unusual Mortality Event, “due to increased bottlenose dolphin strandings in the Indian River Lagoon System along the east coast of Florida beginning in January 2013."

The declaration opens up additional federal funding to further study the die-off.

Right now, the Investigative Team is preparing to test samples from the stranded animals. NOAA said blood and tissue samples will be tested for "bacterial, viral, toxin and other infectious agents." NOAA estimates there are currently more than 660 bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon.

But, while scientists investigate the problem, some worry the damage may have already been done.

"The lagoon may be at that tipping point," said Rice. "We've put way too much pollution into the lagoon and fresh water into the lagoon."

In the last several decades, the lagoon's watershed has been artificially expanded about 146 percent according to the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. In addition, development along the coast has gone virtually unchecked since 2011 when the state abolished the Department of Community Affairs which oversaw construction based on availability of fresh water and drainage canals.

Critics also point to the more than 22,000 registered septic tanks in Brevard County as a possible source of contamination.

In a March presentation by Florida Atlantic University, researchers found that, "Septic Tank Effluent contaminated groundwater to levels in violation of State standards and suggest subsurface transport of contaminants into Jones Creek via the uppermost zones of the surficial aquifer."

"I think the Indian River Lagoon is a clear example of the stresses that we are putting on our systems," said Christopher Byrd, a former state environmental attorney. "The lagoon has hit a tipping point and it's in decline, it's being decimated."

While the deaths of manatees and brown pelicans are alarming, scientists said it is the dolphin die-off that should be most concerning.

"They are sort of the canary in the coal mine for the Indian River Lagoon," said Megan Stolen of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute of Melbourne Beach. "It really speaks to what the whole system is going through."

Dolphins are the apex predator in the Indian river Lagoon. Their deaths have caught the attention of not just researchers but recreational fishermen along the waterway. While fishing continues to be a popular hobby, fishermen complain that the numbers of fish are not as great as they had been in the lagoon, with many deciding to practice catch-and-release rather than eat the fish caught in the waters.

For now, the State of Florida is investigating the manatee and pelican deaths, while the federal government is in charge of the bottlenose dolphin deaths.

"(What) we might be seeing is a sort of cascade of events," said Stolen. "We're seeing multiple influences come tighter in a perfect storm."