Tag Archives: UME

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)

2013’s “Unusual Mortality Event,” now a 2014 Morbillivirus Outbreak, the Ailing Dolphins of the Indian River Lagoon

Bottle nosed dolphin photograph. (Photo courtesy of  Oxstyletech, public photos.)
Bottle nosed dolphin photograph. Prior to 2013, HBOI reported there to be between 800-1000 bottle nosed dolphin in the IRL. (Photo courtesy of Oxstyletech, public photos.)

By now, just about everyone has heard that the beloved dolphins of the Indian River Lagoon are struggling with health issues exacerbated  by poor water quality and compromised immune systems.

I wrote a blog on August 14, 2014 dealing with these issues. Today’s blog goes one step further as since one week, yet another sickness is being reported. It’s called “morbillivirus,” a deadly virus related to human measles and canine distemper in dogs.

At this point, it has only been reported in the northern central lagoon, mostly in the Brevard/Volusia areas.

Florida Today’s report on morbillivirus /IRL 8-29-14: (http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/environment/2014/08/29/virus-deadly-dolphin-hits-lagoon/14826577/)

WESH: 9-2-14 report on morbillivirus IRL (http://m.wesh.com/news/scientists-baby-dolphin-likely-killed-by-virus-in-indian-river-lagoon/27843604)

Just to set the record straight, as all of this becomes very confusing,  in 2012 and 2013, at the height of the northern central Indian River Lagoon’s crash and 60% of their seagrass die off, NOAA, a federal agency, declared two marine mammal UMEs or “Unusual Mortality Events,” for the area of the northern central lagoon.

The first was for manatees that were dying by the hundreds and the second was for IRL bottle nosed dolphins that were also dying at an alarming rate. In both instances the state and federal agencies declare the deaths a “mystery,” even though every second grader can figure out if 60% or more of your food source habitat has suddenly vanished and the waters of your home are toxic with an unpresidented “super bloom” and brown tide of often toxic algae, it just may kill you….

To pull back from my rant, so yes, in 2013, NOAA declared a UME for IRL bottle nosed dolphins in the IRL.

NOAA UME for 2013 bottle nosed dolphins:(http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/floridadolphins2013.html)

Sadly and ironically, almost simultaneously though slightly earlier, NOAA  had declared another UME for the bottle nosed dolphins in the Atlantic Ocean along the eastern United States. This time thought, the agency knew that the mortality event was due to morbillivirus, sickness related to measles and canine distemper in dogs. (http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/27/health/noaa-dolphin-deaths/index.html)  Many hundreds of ocean dolphins have died and therefore if an Atlantic bottle nosed dolphin beaches along the Atlantic Coast (Treasure Coast included)  by law it must be euthanized so as not to spread the disease to other dolphins. Specifically here, dolphins of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.

The two species are related but genetically distinct. Most IRL dolphins are thought to remain in the lagoon…

Unfortunately, about a week ago, as the first two links in this blog show, it was reported that the morbillivirus is now killing dolphins in the northern central lagoon. According to WESH 15 dolphins were found dead in August, 8 of those were determined to be caused by morbillivirus. As one would expect, the disease is killing dolphin calves.

I am no scientist but I am very interested in bottle nosed dolphins as I was a volunteer at Harbor Branch in the marine mammal department and one of my best friends, Nicole Mader works for the Dolphin Ecology Project and photo IDs all of the dolphins in the St Lucie River/Southern IRL.

I  also have had the opportunity to meet and correspond with Dr Gregory Bossert who now works at the Georgia Aquarium and is one of the foremost scientist on documented sickness in the Indian River Lagoon.

Morbillivirus has hit the lagoon and Atlantic bottle nosed dolphins before. Dr Bossert  when he worked at Harbor Branch, wrote a paper along with others studying the disease from 2003-2007 in Charleston, South Carolina and the IRL.

According to the paper:

“Between 1987 and 1988 an epizootic of morbillivirus infection characterized by widespread mortality occurred in bottle nosed dolphins along the eastern coast of the US. An estimated 2500 deaths occurred. Stranded dolphins were found along the cost adjacent to the IRL and inlets connecting the ocean to the estuary. In retrospect serological testing of archived samples indicates that morbillivius infections had been present in the IRL since at least 1982.”

The paper goes on to read:

“The most important finding in the study was the detection of antibodies against DMV and PMV in dolphins from the IRL in absence of an epizootic and typical morbillivirus associate pathologic lesions.”

Hopefully this means that some of the IRL dolphins may have an anti-body to help them fight this next wave of morbillivirus along the eastern coast that has now entered the Indian River Lagoon.

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Florida Today article, The IRL, What went Wrong?(http://www.floridatoday.com/story/news/local/environment/lagoon/2014/05/03/indian-river-lagoon-went-wrong/8672245/)

DEP’s “2014 Indian River Lagoon System Management Plan” for the Once Outstanding Waters of Our Aquatic Preserves

Cover of NOAA/DEP Indian river Lagoon System Management Plan, 2014.
Cover of NOAA/DEP “Draft”Indian River Lagoon System Management Plan, 2014.

My husband came home from the airport yesterday, I was on the couch in the living room reading.  “Have you had a good afternoon?” He asked.

“Awesome,” I replied. “I have been reading the most wonderful document  that contains all of  the important information about  the entire Indian River Lagoon.” I energetically held up my gigantic copy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and NOAA- Indian River Lagoon, Draft Report for 2014.  (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/indianriver/plan.htm)

Ed smiled and looked at me like he usually looks at me in such instances. “That’s great,” he ironically replied, “government publications are my favorite too, how exciting…”

I am not always enamored with government publications, but I am with this one, especially as it is not finalized yet and the agencies are taking comment from the public.

What I like best about the document is that is deals with the entire lagoon, not just one section, including the lagoon’s  four aquatic preserves: 1. Banana River; 2. Malabar to Vero Beach; 3. Vero Beach to Ft Pierce; and 4. Jensen Beach (really just south of the City of Ft Pierce) to Jupiter Inlet.

Locations of the IRL's four aquatic preserves
Locations of the IRL’s four aquatic preserves

According to the document, “each of the four aquatic preserves comprising the IRL System was classified by the state of Florida as OFWs or “Outstanding Florida Waters, “in 1979 (Rule 62-3-2.700 (9) F.A.C.

I was 15 years old at that time. I remember those waters and how they shaped and enriched my life growing up here in Stuart. To think that these “Outstanding Florida Waters,” are now “impaired” makes me sad and makes me angry.

It has been coming for years, but in 2011 through 2013 the lagoon system really “crashed” with the “super-bloom” and brown tides in the central and northern lagoon, killing more than 60% of the area’s seagrass and leading to two federally designated “Unusual Mortality Events” of the endangered manatee, and the protected bottle nosed dolphin.

And also in 2013 the months long toxic algae outbreak in the southern lagoon… This occurred  due to blue-green “microcysis aeruginoas” algae water released by the ACOE from Lake Okeechobee, into the St Lucie River/IRL system. The SLR/IRL system was already over stressed from discharges coming from local canals C-44; C-23; C-24 and C-25…the lake Okeechobee water was the nail in the coffin so to speak.

I think there is a disconnect here. Aren’t these waters protected?

According to the publication, the mission statement of the Florida Coastal Office/Department of Environmental Protection is the following:

1. protect  and enhance the ecological integrity of the aquatic preserves;

2. restore areas to the natural condition;

3. encourage sustainable use and foster active stewardship by engaging local communities in the protection of aquatic preserves; and

4. improve management effectiveness through a process based on sound science, consistent evaluation, and continual reassessment.

I will refrain from bashing of the Department of Environmental Protection as I do not think our fair state’s leadership over the past hundred and fifty plus years has helped them attain their mission. How do you “direct” an agency to protect something and then simultaneously promote over drainage of natural systems,  channelizing, overdevelopment along the lands of these once “outstanding waters,” and allow water districts to over-grant permits for aquifer withdrawal for more agriculture and development?

Another irony I have to add here is that these once “outstanding waters” are what helped bring  people to our  locations and supported their high real estate values. That is changing as some people are now leaving. Last year, in the Town of Sewall’s Point, although the real estate market  improved overall in the county, our property values only increased 0.13%. As a “desirable” water front community with some of the highest property values in the county, this came as a surprise and is certainly directly linked to the “lost summer” and toxic waters of 2013.

The state of Florida needs to “wake up.” The Town of Sewall’s Point is a microcosm for the rest of the state. So what can we do to help? Speak up! 

Please if you have time and interest, check out Indian River Lagoon System Management Plan, Draft Report 2014 below. Even if you don’t read it all, which is almost impossible, keep it as an electronic resource,  and MAKE A COMMENT to the DEP. Even if it is just one that you appreciate that they are reevaluating their management plan and how much the IRL means to you.

It is only through the continued pressure of a caring public that the Indian River Lagoon will be resurrected and its “living waters” will run through our cities again.

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*Copy of Draft IRL System Management Plan,DEP/NOAA, 2014, and list of public meetings that can be attended to make public comment on the document. (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/sites/indianriver/plan.htm)

* The IRL is managed also by the South Florida Water Management District and the St Johns River Water Management District.

Understanding the Many “Unusual Mortality Events,” along the Indian River Lagoon

A large 7 foot  male dolphin dead along the banks of the St Lucie River, 2012 (Photo Nic Mader)
A large dead 7 foot male dolphin held by Dolphin Ecology Project volunteer along the banks of the St Lucie River, 2012.  (Photo Nic Mader)

Right now there are two “Unusual Mortality Events/UMEs” occurring in the Indian River Lagoon and  another along the Atlantic Coast. Hundreds of marine mammals and pelicans have died but fortunately the IRL UMEs have slowed down.

The UME  for Indian River Lagoon manatees “and pelicans” started in 2012; another for Indian River Lagoon bottle-nosed dolphins that do not usually leave the lagoon began in 2013; and the third  for larger Atlantic coast dwelling/migrating  bottle-nosed dolphins stated  around 2012/13. According to state and federal agencies, the Indian River Lagoon UMEs are “mysterious,” but thankfully “they” can say they know the  Atlantic dolphin  UME is “morbillavirus,” or dolphin measles.

Manatees/: (http://myfwc.com/research/manatee/rescue-mortality-response/mortality-statistics/)

Northern/central IRL bottle-nosed dolphins: (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/floridadolphins2013.html)

Atlantic bottle-bosed dolphins: (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/midatldolphins2013.html)

NOAA definition of a UME under Marine Mammal Act: (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/)

Interesting how in the Indian River Lagoon, the UMEs coincide with the also “mysterious” loss of 60% of its seagrasses since 2009/10; this situation really “crashed” and became public in 2013, simultaneous with the dumping from Lake Okeechobee and the peoples’ River Movement in Martin and St Lucie Counties in the southern lagoon.

SJRMWD seagrass loss data: (http://floridaswater.com/itsyourlagoon/)

For every day folk, unlike our  federal and state agencies, there  is no “mystery,”  there simply is not enough left for the animals to eat. While being so critical,  I should note a commonly spread falsehood, “that the releases from Lake Okeechobee are causing the die off in the northern/central lagoon,” is untrue. Certainly they negatively affect and help cause disease in the souther lagoon, but Brevard and Volusia counties, over a hundred miles north, are too distant for the releases to be killing these animals directly. Particularly northern lagoon dolphins who are very territorial and generally stay in either the north.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the southern lagoon right now, especially the Ft Pierce area, is one of the few half-way healthy areas remaining,  so dumping that is pushed up to Ft Pierce Inlet,  from Stuart, is part of an overall death for the IRL: north and central  horrid algae blooms and UMEs, and then the southern lagoon’s problems with Lake Okeechobee releases and its other canals causing seagrass loss, up to  85% according to Florida Oceanographic’s Mark Perry.

So UMEs in the IRL and seagrass loss are related and the agencies recognize this connection but still consider the UMEs a “mystery.”

To close, one of the concerns of Stephen McCulloch, former director of the marine mammal department at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, is that southwardly migrating dolphins along the Atlantic coast could enter the Indian River Lagoon, or a rare lagoon dolphin may exit an inlet and interact with oceanic dolphins then spreading  morbillavirus  among the already “mysteriously sick” Indian River Lagoon dolphins.

McCulloch is concerned if the virus entered the lagoon, it  could “kill them all.”

There were fewer than one thousand in the lagoon loosely documented before the 2013 IRL dolphin UME and now it is accepted that over 10 percent of those have died. This, as all marine mammal health, is a very serious matter.

LINK: Video IRL/UME by ORCA: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXahUnqfv78#t=28)