Beautiful glow carries price for lagoon

A bioluminescent algae that turns the waters of Mosquito Lagoon and the Indian River Lagoon into a magical, mystery light show has reappeared.

Surrounding manatees, dolphins and mullet in a blue glow and sparkling in the water like stars, it’s attracting paddlers by the hundreds, their voices echoing across the water in delight.

But to some scientists, the phenomenon — caused by a microorganism known as Pyrodinium bahamense — is as worrisome as the algae blooms that left the lagoon system looking more like pea soup during the past three summers.

It’s another example of a single toxic algae dominating the system, said Alina Corcoran, a research scientist who oversees the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s harmful algal bloom program. “It’s not a good thing that we have Pyrodinium in the system.”

Pyrodinium has been documented in the lagoon since at least 2002. That’s the year about a dozen people became ill after eating puffer fish caught in the lagoon, fish that had not previously been toxic. Scientists discovered the Pyrodinium produced a saxitoxin found in the puffer fish, as well as clams and other shellfish. That led to a permanent ban on catching puffer fish in the lagoon.

Since 2003, more than 40 shellfish closures — including two this summer — have taken place at various locations in the lagoon because saxitoxin in the shellfish tested above safe levels, Corcoran said.

In 2011, the glow faded, likely crowded out by the “superbloom” of another algal species that clouded the water and resulted in the die-off of thousands of acres of sea grass. Patchy bioluminescence was seen in 2012 and 2013 but not to the degree it has been seen this year.

Paddlers, unaware of the scientific ramifications, have been happy to see its return this summer. On Saturday night, kayak launches at Haulover Canal in the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge south of Oak Hill were packed.

Tamela Koshiol of DeLand recently paddled out with her husband and son to see it for the first time.

“Every time you ran the paddle through, and the water would trickle through it, it was like little diamonds sparkling down into the water,” she said. “Seriously, I thought it looked like glow sticks in the water, it was so bright.”

Edie Widder, president and senior scientist at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, agrees the Pyrodinium can be “breathtakingly beautiful.”

The microorganisms are a natural phenomenon, usually preceded by rain events that wash nutrients into the water, and sunny days where photosynthesis is optimized, said Widder, an expert on bioluminescence. She describes their flash of light as a sort of burglar alarm or warning, either alerting predators or making it easier for their predators to be seen and eaten by other animals.

In some ways, its reappearance this year is a “weird sort of good news, bad news story,” Widder said. “On the one hand, there’s nutrients in the water that are feeding this bloom and we don’t want too many nutrients.”

On the other hand, she said, at least the water quality has improved enough that the cells can photosynthesize.

 

Photo caption: NO RESTRICTIONS Bioluminescent algae in the water creates sparkling waves against a backdrop of lights on the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County. Photo/Ocean Research and Conservation Association.

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