When I was a kid, I often walked to the Indian River Lagoon and just stood there in amazement watching the hundreds, if not thousands, of baby horseshoe crabs winding their way through the sands. They left circular trails, crossing over and over again…
Where were they going? What were they doing? Why were there so many?
Every once in a while, I would pick one up and place it carefully in the palm of my hand. Its sharp tail and prickly feet pushed against me. I watched in wonder at its strength as it bent in half. Once returned to the sand, the little crab went back to work immediately as if nothing had happened at all.
My mother had told me the horseshoe crabs were more ancient than the dinosaurs and had been here “forever.” “They are living fossils” she would say. “And they can live over 20 years and take 10 years just to mature.”
Although I picked them up with such care, today, forty years later, when I try to find them, they’re gone.
What happened to the horseshoe crabs of the Indian River Lagoon? How did a creature so ancient, resilient, and prevalent almost “disappear?”
Although there is quite a bit of literature on the Central Indian River Lagoon, I could not find much on the Southern Lagoon. Some of the best documentation came from Gretchen S. Ehlinger and Richard A. Tankersley. On line, they are cited multiple times for their paper “Reproductive Ecology of the American Horseshoe Crab, Limulus Polyphemus, in the Indian River Lagoon: An Overview.” I was also able to read “Evaluation of the Horseshoe Crab Fishery in the Indian River Lagoon Using Catch Data From Two Power Plants,” and a September 2014 “FPL Cape Canaveral Energy Center Horseshoe Crab Deterrent Fence Specifications” publication.
All of these lead to the following observations: decline of the species has been noted for around three decades. There have been UME’s or “Unexplained Mortality Events” where up to a 100,000 have died in the same area around the same time.
Factors that are related to their overall decline in the lagoon include intense coastal development, shoreline breeding grounds destruction, and unbridled human population growth; expansion of agriculture drainage watersheds into the IRL; deteriorating water quality; power plants sucking up as many as 100,000 a year into their intake canals; and over-fishing. The crabs are used as bait, collected for marine purposes, and more recently captured live and bled for their “blue-blood”that is invaluable to human health.
Unfortunately, for many years, the value and importance of the horseshoe crab was not recognized. For instance, Ehlinger and Tankersley note a one year study in the early 2000s at two Indian River Lagoon power plants that recorded a total of 39,097 crabs trapped on the intake screens at Cape Canaveral, and 53,121 at the Orland Utilities Plant. The scientists also mention a previous study from 1975 that estimated 69,662 at the Canaveral Plant, and 104,000 trapped annually at the Orlando Utilitility’s Indian River plant. “This alone could easily account for a decline in the Indian River population.” (Ehlinger and Tankersley 2007)
The St Lucie Power Plant located here in the southern lagoon did not agree to be part of the study and there is very little research one can now find on the subject.
In any case, the good news is that just recently the Cape Canaveral plant has installed a wall to protect the horseshoe crabs and science’s recognition of the species has people wanting them to come back.
The Florida Wildlife Commission notes:
“Horseshoe crabs are extremely important to the biomedical industry because their unique, copper-based blue blood contains a substance called “Limulus Amebocyte Lysate”, or “LAL”.This compound coagulates in the presence of small amounts of bacterial toxins and is used to test for sterility of medical equipment and virtually all injectable drugs. Anyone who has had an injection, vaccination, or surgery has benefitted from horseshoe crabs!”
…”in March 2000, a series of management measures for horseshoe crabs went into effect in Florida. The regulations required a license to harvest and set a limit on the number of animals each licensee could harvest per day (25 to 100 animals allowed per day per person depending on the permit). In 2002, a biomedical permitting rule created a mechanism to allow for biomedical collection.”
Personally, looking at these photos of the horseshoe crabs being bled is like a science fiction movie to me. Never as a kid would I have imagined my little friends with needles in their heads being milked for their blood.
….But if this is what is going to save them… I must say, if they could talk, I bet now is the strangest part of their 450 million year journey. In my mind, they will always be free and drawing circles in the sand.
Like hard resin, stories of long-leaf pine and towering Florida forests are in me. Since my earliest days, I remember visiting my mother’s family and hearing tales around the dinner table:
“In the 1930s your Granddady and Uncle Gordy dove down to the bottom of the Swanee River, chained those sunken water-logged giant trees, pulled them out with mules, put them on a train to Gainesville, milled them, and built this house by hand. Virgin long-leaf pine that had been on the bottom of that river for 90 years became our home. This house is history.”
At the time, the stories were just part of a lifestyle I did not lead living “down” in Stuart, Florida with the Yankees. In Gainesville we ate boiled peanuts, okra, gigantic breakfasts of bacon, eggs, toast, and homemade jelly. In Stuart, I ate Lucky Charms.
Now that I am becoming an old-pine myself, the story of the long-lost, long-leaf pine is more interesting to me. And “lo and behold,” although public records show the famous long-leaf forest stopping just north of Lake Okeechobee, recently my mother and I learned that they were, indeed, further south, right here in what today is Martin County!
This observation is bases on a 1st hand account of 1910 by J.H. Vaughn in an Abstract of Title for Indiantown, Florida.
In the early days of our country, long-leaf pine forests covered approximately 90 million acres and stretched across the entire southeastern United States. These trees are documented to have stood from 80 to 175 feet tall and many were up to 400 years in age. Of course multiple animals were dependent on the forest for shelter and food and there were massive benefits to the watersheds. The cleanest waters in the world run off of forests. These amazing trees evolved to completely withstand forest fires, actually thriving in such conditions. Imagine if you would these remarkable trees of our Creator, cut to the ground with the same state of mind as today when mowing one’s lawn….By the 1920s only 3% of the forests remained.
So where were these trees in Martin County? Where do we fit into the incredible history of these magnificent conifers? J. H. Vaughn, a lumber man of the 1800s, negotiating a sale states in the abstract of title below:
“…there is an average of 2000 feet of Long Leaf Yellow Virgin pine per acre.. being on the eastern side of Lake Okeechobee…”.
(The Townships and Ranges listed are today’s Indiantown.)
I think it is incredible that we are part of the long-leaf pine odyssey. As today, the Nature Conservancy and people like M.C. Davies have dedicated their fortunes and lives to bringing back this magnificent species and the animal life that comes along with it. The situation is a lot like St Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee restoration. It’s a generational goal done so that our stories and our lives are remembered, and not “long-lost.”
“Here is the basin right now. It may not be the blue-green algae but I am willing to bet it has some of the same properties that created the algae bloom.” —Mary Radabaugh, Central Marine
Central Marine…the epicenter for the St Lucie River’s “Algae Crisis of 2016.” More photographed than a movie star, the marina became home-base for reporters, politicians, as well as state and federal agencies. All witnessed something beyond human imagination. It is something we will never forget…
Mary and Dutch Radabaugh, who manage Central Marine, bravely and eloquently handled the situation, and kept working….
Mary became the spokesperson for Martin County on local, state, national, and international media. Her confident and calm southern manner gave stability when it was difficult to breathe.
This year, in 2017, Mary has remained low-key. Although the ACOE is not discharging Lake Okeechobee waters in to the St Lucie River, the marina definitely has been showing signs of a possible coming bloom…
The “circus” too fresh in Mary’s memory, she has not spoken, until now.
The photos below are Mary’s; they are dated. As one can see, although there is no blue-green algae visible, there are the signs. The signs we learned to recognize in 2016. The bubbles, the foam, the nutrient swirls of seeming organization…
So, with no dumping where are the nutrient bubbles coming from? These nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) are known side effects from years of careless agriculture and development—- that feed the “algae…”
Is it there from last year, or before? Is is rising from the putrid muck of the river where the blooms sunk and died only to rise again?
Most important. Is it now endemic to the system? Will it affect our health?
~Just to look and see if we could follow the bubble/foam for Mary, Ed and I flew on Sunday, July 30th, from the St Lucie Locks to the St Lucie Inlet. It was early morning, and the light was not great, but one could see the intermittent bubble swirls like a gigantic serpent to the Inlet. In the video they are most visible rounding the peninsula of Sewall’s Point.
Mary just happened to be at the Sandbar and St Lucie Inlet on Sunday, just off Sewall’s Point. She texted a photo and wrote:
“I really have a hard time watching people swim in the water when it is that gross brown color. I truly believe if they were dumping the lake right now we would be way worse than last year. This that we are seeing I believe is remnants of algae settled in our river bottom being churned up in combination with natural runoffs. Keep up the documentation so when they do decide they need to open them we can show it will be a catastrophe to human health.”
Mary’s photos of dark river water flowing out towards the St Lucie Inlet, July 30th, 2017:
Sometimes it seems there is not a piece of land that doesn’t have the mark of modern-humans on it…but then, we have been leaving our mark for thousands, and thousands of years…
On a recent trip with renowned South Florida photographer Edward Carr, my husband Ed and I flew over the contiguous Dupuis and J.W. Corbett Wildlife Areas ~ “bordering” Martin and Palm Beach counties.
It was quite a view, and I felt embarrassed that I did not know more about these wonderful remaining lands located so close to home. So interesting to see them in a more natural state. The circles of trees, dome-like, standing in shallow water. Shades of green, brown, and blue changing and reflecting with every turn. An animal running into the bush. What was it?! A deer? A panther?
I have to admit, chasing toxic algae sometimes overtake me!.. I must remind myself “to stop and smell the pond apples!”
Mr Carr was photographing for a documentary on “Big Mound City” the most remarkable of places our human ancestors called home. These native people of Lake Okeechobee’s Belle Glade Culture, built mounds to get above the swamp rather than trying to drain it….as sea level rises, we many have to consider this once again just like the FEMA project in Sewall’s Point!
I find this entirely fascinating…history repeating itself…
I tried to get Ed later in that week to go with me into Corbett for a hike and to explore, but he said it’s too hot right now, he rather fly. It would be “torture in there.” Well, when the weather cools down, I am taking him. What a wonderful piece of natural history to have right in your own back yard.
The fact that Lake Okeechobee, the St Lucie River, and other water bodies of our state are in such poor condition puts the state of Florida “between a rock and a hard place.” After all, for centuries just saying the word “Florida” conjured up visions paradise…
Cyanobacteria, that often becomes “toxic algae,” is bad for business. In fact, perhaps nothing is worse for business. It is also bad for people’s health. Hmm? How does the state report toxic algae and fulfill their responsibility for safety without scaring people away? And without hurting business?
The answer is of course that “you really can’t…” But you can be honest and take leadership. You can turn a bad situation into a good one, because after all, a very powerful force of human nature is a common enemy.
Cyanobacteria, toxic algae, is our common enemy. For ALL of us.
The state has known that Lake Okeechobee has been eutrophic (prone to algae blooms) since at least the 1960s–the time of my birth. Early documentation from the state Geological Societies and Water Management Districts clearly documented the over nutrification of the lake, due to agriculture and development’s run-off exacerbated by channelization of rivers, lakes, the draining of lands, later the spreading of bio-solids (treated human waste) on fields, and a population explosion.
It is time to start diligently approaching the reporting of algae blooms and tracking their sources. There is a lot of area to cover; we can’t just test from the side of the road. Algae is living and changing and morphing every second. It is worth the investment to monitor it for what it is, an enemy. 24 hours a day…
Looking back gives us perspective when looking forward.
This old map showing the Palm Beach Farms Company Lands is interesting as is shows where people saw the “edge of the Everglades” when they were first developing around 1910.
Today it is hard to judge where we are and what “was” the Everglades…Some of us are literally “in it.”
Looking back, it is easy to see how after over 100 years the waters of Lake Okeechobee are becoming more and more “toxic.” Kind of like a fish tank that can never be cleaned out….
One has wonder if the developers of the Everglades ever considered what would happen to the lake by building and developing farm lands right in the way of the natural flow, and then really blocking it by eventually putting a dike around the lake? In this map, the push was to develop lands further west beyond the eastern ridge…Think all all the development today out west beyond the ridge and into the historic Everglades!
Perhaps in their wildest dreams the early developers would have never envisioned how many people live in south Florida today. Maybe they didn’t care. In any case, today we all here in South Florida are connected somehow to Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s “liquid heart,” for drinking water, recharge, recreation, property values, and our health.
Over our history the human spirit has overcome greater threats than toxic algae; I am confident we will once again.