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Sebastian fish kill could be warning sign of more to come due to rising temperatures

'My concern is we could see this unfold more frequently,' says Dr. Zak Jud, director of education for Florida Oceanographic Society
Posted at 12:53 AM, Aug 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-02 08:57:38-04

SEBASTIAN, Fla. — A fish kill in Indian River County could be the first warning sign of more marine life dying off due to high temperatures and runoff, according to a biologist.

Dr. Zak Jud, director of education for the Florida Oceanographic Society, said on Sunday morning he got a call from a friend who is a charter fishing guide in Sebastian, who then sent him pictures of hundreds of dead fish around a dock on the Indian River Lagoon.

Dr. Zak Jud, director of education for the Florida Oceanographic Society said the active fish kill in Sebastian was reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Aug. 1, 2023
Dr. Zak Jud, director of education for the Florida Oceanographic Society said the active fish kill in Sebastian was reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"We immediately reported it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as an active fish kill, and the end result is what I suspected," Jud said.

Jud said the fish kill was caused by an algae bloom the area has been dealing with over the past few weeks.

Jud said the algae, called pyrodinium, is the same type of bioluminescence algae that people go out to look at on kayaks and paddle boards, but unfortunately, is also a harmful type of algae to fish.

"It is being fueled by pollution that we are putting in the waterways," Jud said. "During certain types of algae blooms, the oxygen level in the water can get so low the fish literally suffocate. Exacerbated by our high temperatures."

Combine the high temperatures with the runoff that likely seeped into the lagoon from Friday's flooding in Fellsmere and Jud said it's the perfect storm.

"Record-breaking heat can fuel an algae bloom but on top of that, the weather patterns we’ve had recently also result in a lot of precipitation and runoff, that carries all these pollutants, the nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater and fertilizer and septic into the estuary," Jud said.

WPTV First Alert Weather meteorologists said 25 out of July's 31 days were under a heat advisory. Jud said, for that reason, he's worried about the effect the rising temperatures will have on the lagoon.

"We’re not even in the hottest part of the summer yet," Jud said. "My concern is we could see this unfold more frequently. Not just this year but into the next few years down the road where we’re seeing temperatures increase, rainfall and runoff, and at the same time more and more pollution entering our waterways."

Jud said this fish kill affected hundreds of fish of all different species.

dead fish on beach in Sebastian, Aug. 1, 2023
A dead fish is seen on the beach, Aug. 1, 2023, in Sebastian, Fla.

"We saw snook, we saw flounder, sheepshead, all these game fish," Jud said.

Ray Martinez captured video of the fish kill, showing dozens of fish gasping for air and washing up on the shore just south of the Sebastian Yacht Club.

"I went out early in the morning on the weekend and noticed there was a lot of fish gasping for air on the surface, then I looked towards the edge, then I saw a whole bunch of different types of species gasping for air," said Martinez.

Martinez said he frequently goes fishing on the water, and was concerned when he says the fish dying.

"Nobody wants to have a contaminated river whatsoever. As well as the wildlife," said Martinez. "It's why I moved down here."

WPTV saw several bloated and decomposing fish Tuesday near the yacht club, but not nearly as many as were spotted in Martinez's video. Martinez said he saw birds eating many of the fish.

Jud said in order to prevent future fish kills, he believes more action needs to be taken to manage runoff and prevent it from seeping into waterways.

"We need to push our elected officials, whether it's at the county level, the state level or the federal level, to clean up this precious, beautiful body of water," Jud said. "If we don't stop the nutrient pollution from going into the Indian River lagoon, if we don't stop the septic tank runoff and the wastewater facilities that aren't managing wastewater properly, we're going to continue to see fish kills in the future."

Yet Jud also mentioned there's another issue compounding the problem.

Previously, WPTV reported on a recent Florida budget item that bans municipalities from implementing new fertilizer bans or adjusting current ones for the next year. Jud said he feared this would only prevent cities and counties from changing laws to help turn the situation around.