• 9 Investigates: Dolphin deaths and the Indian River Lagoon


    BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. - In August Eyewitness News took to the waters of the Indian River Lagoon with scientists to discover what was killing the dolphins, manatees and pelicans. At the time 60 bottlenose dolphins had died; this month we returned to the lagoon to discover that number now stands at 79.

    "Yesterday was a bad day."

    That is how Hubbs-SeaWorld Researcher Megan Stolen described the situation when Channel 9's Christopher Heath met her outside of her office in Melbourne Beach.

    Less than 24 before Heath's arrival, Stolen and her team removed two dead dolphins from the lagoon and were forced to euthanize a third; on the day Heath spoke to her she was preparing to perform a necropsy on one of the dolphins.

    "I'm not too optimistic at this point," Stolen told us as she began the grim task of removing the dolphin's brain to take samples.

    This summer 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 says 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.

    Joining the fight for answers is The Florida Institute of Technology. Located on the shore of the lagoon, the university announced in early November that it was creating an Indian River Lagoon Research Institute to address what the school calls "pressing issues of the health of the Indian River Lagoon." In it's announcement the school pledged to use its "state-of-the-art laboratories and field sites for chemical and biological testing and for designing and developing engineering solutions to lagoon problems."

    "We've recently encountered sort of a perfect storm," says Florida Tech Professor of Oceanography Dr. Gary Zarillo.
      But while scientists investigate the problem some worry the damage may have already been done.

    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."

    More than 150 miles west of the Indian River Lagoon is another Florida estuary on the opposite end of the ecological spectrum. Since the late 90s Sarasota Bay has experienced the return of fish and water mammals to its waterways.

    "That waste percolates into the ground," says David Cash of Sarasota County Public Utilities as he points to a neighborhood in the watershed that is still on septic tanks. "What eventually ends up in the creek and then flows out to Sarasota Bay."

    In the last decade Sarasota County has spent almost $100 million on sewer and water projects. The county has laid new pipes, closed old and outdated facilities, built new water treatment plants and begun an aggressive program to replace septic tanks with sewer lines.

    "Ultimately it is the right thing to do, albeit a costly venture," says Cash, who credits the program with improving the health of the bay.

    Back in the Indian River lagoon, the estuary may soon start seeing some of its own financial help. On Nov. 8 the Florida Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon recommended spending part of $220 million for sediment removal and dredging in the central and northern Indian River Lagoon.

    "We have a lot of fine grain sediment washing out of the canals and watersheds into the lagoon," says Zarillo.

    The dredging and sediment removal will, according to researchers, help to bring the ecosystem back into balance, but is not considered to be a total solution for the health of the estuary. Researchers caution that they still do not know the underlying cause of the dolphin or manatee deaths, and while the removal of the built-up sediment load will help it is going to take several steps to reverse the trend in the lagoon and save the species that call it home.

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