Tag Archives: brackish

Vibrio Vulnificus, Flesh-Eating or Not? St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

The Indian River Lagoon (Photo by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch, 2013.)
The Central Indian River Lagoon. (Photo by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch and Ed Lippisch, 2013.)

Although the Martin County Health Department reports that Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria found in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon, is not truly a “flesh-eating bacteria,” in rare circumstances it  can cause horrific blisters, limb amputations, and even death.

The naturally occurring  bacteria is not well understood, but a study published in The Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2004 regarding a study in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey states:

“V. vulnificus population dynamics are strongly correlated to water temperature and although the general trend is for V. vulnificus abundance to be inversely correlated with salinity, this relationship depends on salinity levels. Irrespective of temperature, high abundances of V. vulnificus are observed at 5 to 10 ppt, which thus appears to be the optimal salinity regime for their survival…”

This “ideal salinity level” is particularly noteworthy as during the rainy summer months salinities in the Indian River Lagoon lessen, due to polluted freshwater run-off and canal discharges. This situation is exacerbated in the southern lagoon if there are releases from Lake Okeechobee, as there were during the “Lost Summer” of 2013.

People are exposed to the bacteria through an open wound or through ingesting raw seafood, especially infected oysters. Cases occur though out the US, but according to the Center for Disease Control, Florida, Texas, and Maryland report the highest number of cases annually.

Contracting an infection from “vibrio” is extremely rare, and in fact, most people exposed to the bacteria may show no signs of infection at all. Others might experience mild effects such as diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. However, for those who have weak immune systems, chronic liver disease, or other serious health problems, the vibrio can strike very quickly and be fatal.

In 2013, Florida Today reported that Florida averages 50 cases, 45 hospitalizations and 16 deaths annually, most from the Gulf Coast region, according to the Florida Department of Health. They also report  that Brevard County, along the IRL, where Melbourne is located, has had 32 cases of Vibrio vulnificus infections since 1993.

Within the past year, two very serious, but non-fatal cases were reported in Melbourne, in Brevard County; and one fatal incident was reported in Ormand Beach, Volusia County, along the Halifax River, which is connected to the northern Indian River Lagoon, north of Ponce Inlet. Ironically, these central and northern IRL areas are the same locations where there have been high dolphin and manatee mortalities as expressed in NOAA’s 2013 “Unusual Mortality Events,” (UME).

As far as the southern lagoon, it was recently reported in Scripps Newspapers that two FAU/Harbor Branch scientists had found Vibrio vulnificus here as well.

This is unsettling, but to be expected, as this bacteria was probably here when I was 5 years old growing up in Stuart, every summer, full of scrapes and cuts swimming around in the warm waters of the lagoon. We must keep our perspective. Thousands of people have contact with Florida’s waters and the Indian River Lagoon and yet few become sick.

Martin County Health Department Director,  Klaretta Peck, stated in a press release to Martin County elected officials this year:”

“I am writing today to share some information with you regarding Vibrio vulnificus. As you may have heard, some news media outlets have taken a sensationalistic approach to this issue, going as far as reporting unconfirmed cases, which can cause unnecessary alarm to the public. There are no recent cases of Vibrio Vulnificus in Martin County and though vibrio can cause blisters and lesions, is it not a “flesh eating bacteria” and should not be referred to as such.”

This is reassuring, nonetheless, at the height of summer,  a Sewall’s Point mother called me, as I am a town commissioner.  She was worried by what she had read in the papers  and asked me if I thought it was alright to take her three-year old twins swimming at the Sandbar.

“Of course, ” I replied, then  I hesitated:

“Do they have any open scratches?…”

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Vibrio vulnificus information: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: (http://www.cdc.gov/vibrio/vibriov.html)

American Society for Microbiology: AEM Journal: “Effects of Temperature and Salinity on Vibrio vulnificus Population Dynamics as Assessed by Quantitative PCR”
Mark A. Randa, Martin F. Polz, and Eelin Limhttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC520858/#!po=85.4167)

A Time for Alligators Along the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

An antique post card reads," A Florida Native." ca 1910. (Thurlow collection.)
An antique post card reads, “A Native of Florida,” ca. 1910. (Thurlow collection.)

I have always liked alligators. I have  been around them as long as I can remember in one way or another. When I was a kid and we would go water skiing near North River Shores close to the North Fork of the St Lucie River, we would see small ones leisurely resting in storm pipes coming out of people’s seawalls;  in my household everyone was always cheering for them as my grandfather Henderson, my parents, and later myself and brother also graduated from University of Florida. Jenny my sister is a traitor and went to Emory. 🙂

My parents have an awesome collection of alligator postcards that I will share today, and I figured now is a good time to write about gators as their babies should be hatching soon in nests along the fresh and some brackish areas of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. The females lay their eggs in early June and the little ones  hatch out about 65 days later.

“Crocodilla” fossil records show alligators have been on the earth for more than 200 million years. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself. But they have had many hardships.

According to Sandra Thurlow’s history writings on our Treasure Coast, when many of the first pioneers came to Florida and took river tours, they often just shot as many as they could “for fun.” This went for egrets and herons too. Sorry. But what a bunch of idiots. I know, I must be open minded and look at things “historically” within the context of the times….kind of like how people drained the whole state with out thinking…

As far as alligators, more recently, hunting, poaching, the fashion industry, pollution, and loss of habitat pushed the Florida alligator to the brink of extinction by the 1950s. In 1967 the US government listed alligators as an endangered species and gave them protection.  In one of the great comebacks of the “endangered,” alligators were increasing in numbers by the 1980s. They still have protections today, but are off the “endangered” list. 

Here are some of the antique postcards from my parents’ collection.

Alligator post card collection ca. 1910. (Thurlow collection.)
Alligator post card collection ca,. 1910-20 (Thurlow collection.)

IMG_6693 IMG_6691 IMG_6694 IMG_6690 IMG_6688 IMG_6686

Recently, a friend called me up and asked if there was someone who could move a small alligator on her property in Palm City. I called trappers recommended to me, and each of them said by law, if the alligator was reported as a “nuisance” and was over four feet, it would be removed and killed, not relocated.

I found this depressing but this is how the state manages the “nuisance gators.” Apparently they may be used for their leather and meat keeping the population in check.  Hmmm? The trapper also said, “If you don’t want it killed, just leave it alone, chances are it will move in time to another area.” This makes sense to me.

According to a Stuart News article by Ed Killer in 2010, in the state of Florida, the Florida Wildlife Commission from 1948 to 2009 documented that there were a total of  512 allligator bites; unprovoked: 330; provoked, 182; fatalities, 22. There have been two deaths in our Martin/St Lucie area. In 1978 a 14 year old boy was killed while swimming across Hidden River Canal off Bessey Creek and in 1984 an 11 year old boy was killed while swimming in a canal in St Lucie County. The alligators were 11-12 feet long.

This is terrible and heartbreaking. Like sharks, alligators share our environment are dangerous when large; we must be careful in their presence.

To end on a more positive note, in my reading I learned alligators have been noted using tools, like humans, a trait that belongs only to a few “intelligent” species. Yes. Alligators have been documented purposefully diving under the water putting sticks on their heads so water birds will land on them when looking for sticks to build their nests. Ingenious!

Maybe if we destroy the Indian River Lagoon and St Lucie River completely, along with the rest of the planet, they will return walking on two legs? Perhaps they would manage the waters of South Florida a lot better than humans…

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LINKS OF INTEREST

Florida Memory Project/Alligators: (http://www.floridamemory.com/photographiccollection/photo_exhibits/alligators/protection.php)
FWC/Alligator Facts: (http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/alligator/facts/)
FWC/Alligator Management: (http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/alligator/)
Encyclopedia of Life/Alligators: (http://eol.org/data_objects/15661319)