Fukushima Radiation and America's Aquatic Dustbowl

A Brevard Times Editorial

The Banana River with NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center in the background. Brevard Times / File photo.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- Several comparisons can be drawn between the American Dust Bowl of the 1930's and the recent plight of the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's east coast.

Both ecological disasters followed a boom-and-bust economic cycle, suffered the over-grazing of natural grasses, and had a perfect storm of meteorological bad luck combined with human causes.

Two events marked the decimation of the Lagoon's environment.  First, there was the loss of over 60% of seagrass coverage from 2009 through 2012.  Second, there was the Indian River Lagoon Algae Superbloom that lasted from April 2011 through March 2012.   Both events were extraordinary because no events of that scale had ever been recorded in the Lagoon's history.

Those extraordinary events were followed by an unusually high number of manatee deaths beginning in 2012 and continuing throughout 2013.  Unusually high dolphin and pelican deaths were also recorded during 2013.

Despite those events being historically extraordinary statistical outliers, many environmentalists blamed the Lagoon's demise on causes that have otherwise remained constant (or even dropped) such as fertilizers, sewage, muck, grass clippings, runoff, pet waste, and even global warming.

Some media followed suit by publishing article after article listing those factors while struggling for proof of a causal relationship.  Politicians then held meetings, workshops, and began enacting laws and ordinances without clear evidence as to the cause or a definitive cure of the recent seagrass loss and Superbloom.

But the strongest evidence against those particular human-related common causes was the geographical location of the start of the Superbloom in the northernmost portion of the Banana River that is bordered by sparse populations because the federal lands of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Canaveral National Seashore, and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge make up most of that area's landmass.

Graphic Credit: SJRMD - Federal Lands coloration added by Brevard Times

In fact, the Saint John's River Management District's Indian River Lagoon 2011 Superbloom Investigation noted that scientists could be missing a key piece of the puzzle:

"It was more surprising that the event even happened at all given the long-term drought conditions during the 2009 - 2011 period [and the] decreasing trend in treated wastewater discharges... drought means comparatively little rainfall-runoff...The other major external sources - atmospheric and groundwater - are similarly affected by rainfall and would be diminished during the same period. Therefore; notwithstanding some unreported nutrient-laden discharge, an internal flux of nutrients may be the primary mechanism that fueled the bloom. " (Emphasis added).

Instead of addressing those widely-published common causes, this article takes a look at other extraordinary events that occurred which may have led to the seagrass disappearance and the 2011 Superbloom.  While nothing in this article is conclusive, it does raise several factors that scientists and politicians have overlooked, but must examine, for both the integrity of scientific inquiry and the legitimacy of public policy lawmaking.

Fukushima Radiation Fallout In Florida and the Indian River Lagoon Superbloom of 2011

Following the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster on March 11, 2011, radioactive fission product material began to spread across the globe.  As seen in this time lapse video map of Fukushima radiation distribution across the world, Florida had the meteorological bad luck of being under a concentrated atmospheric radioactive "swirl" from the second half of March through April 2011.

Video Credit:  Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik (ZAMG)

As a result, Melbourne, Florida in Brevard County recorded the highest single day concentration of Iodine-131 of anywhere in the world, according to measurements taken by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.  Xenon and Cesium were also detected in Melbourne.  Additionally, Cesium-134, 136 and 137; Iodine-131 and 132; and Tellurium-129m and 132 were detected by air filters in nearby Orlando, Florida.  North of the Indian River Lagoon, Cesium-134 and Iodine-131 were detected in rainfall in Jacksonville, Florida.

Graphic Credit: National Weather Service
While the radioactive material was overhead and falling onto Florida, severe weather with strong winds, waterspouts, hail, and heavy rainfall fell over east Central Florida during the last few days of March.

As shown in the above graphic, the heaviest rainfall amounts occurred over the Indian River and Banana River in the northern half of Brevard County and correspond geographically where the most intense Superbloom first erupted in April 2011 depicted below.

Graphic Credit: SJRMD - Fukushima radiation symbol added by Brevard Times

The extraordinary event of radioactive material present over the Lagoon followed by severe weather and heavy rainfall that would wash the fission products down from the atmosphere onto the surrounding watershed and into the Lagoon basin raises several questions:

1.  During atomic testing in the 1950's, it was discovered that certain species of algae not only survive, but thrive, when absorbing certain radioactive materials.  It is suggested by some scientific research that this absorption also causes some algae to become toxic, or at the very least, "bad tasting" to its predators which allows algae to grow uninhibited.

If fission product materials did indeed enter the Indian River Lagoon, it would explain why algae blooms erupted in military-restricted areas of the Lagoon that are away from civilian populations where fertilizer, sewage, grass clippings, and pet waste would not have been a factor.

2.  Did the introduction of fission product materials into the Lagoon cause some species of algae to awaken from a dormant state?  This might explain why the unidentified Pedinophyceae class of algae was brought out of its quiescent state and dominated the Superbloom.

3.   Of all fission products, Iodine-131 is the most dreaded because exposure to low doses can lead to thyroid cell damage, cancer, and metabolic disorders.  Iodine-131 also dissolves easily in water which allows it to move easily into plants and animals.  What effect, if any, did the direct exposure of Iodine-131 and other fission products have on marine life in the Lagoon, especially marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees?

4. Beyond algal growth, what were the secondary and tertiary effects of radioactive material throughout the food web in the Indian River Lagoon?

5. Did the introduction of fission product materials into the Lagoon, followed by absorption by algae and other biological organisms, cause those organisms to create biochemical toxins that were not present in the Lagoon before the Fukushima disaster?

6. Did the severe weather by itself, notwithstanding the fission products, stir settled nutrients and dormant algae in the Lagoon to cause the Superbloom?

Readers may wonder why the timing of the Fukushima radiation and the Superbloom hasn't been raised before.  It could simply be that it is not widely known that the radioactive materials reached the Indian River Lagoon.  In fact, Brevard Times was the only local news source that reported on the Fukushima radiation cloud over Brevard County in Spring 2011.

Additionally, the radiation levels were deemed safe by the Florida Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  So the media was not alerted and the public was not instructed to take potassium iodine as a preventative measure against thyroid damage.

While the Fukushima disaster might explain the 2011 Superbloom, it cannot explain why seagrass has been disappearing from the Lagoon beginning in 2009.  The most often-cited hypothesis for the seagrass loss by some environmentalists goes something like this:

Fertilizer and sewage send nutrients into the Lagoon, algae feeds on the nutrients, 
algae blooms block out sunlight and kill off the seagrass; therefore, 
fertilizer and sewage are the reasons why the seagrass disappeared 
and the Indian River Lagoon is dying.

But there are geographic and timing flaws to that logic chain when applied to the 2009-2012 seagrass disappearance.

First, seagrass disappeared in areas where there are sparse populations due to federally-protected land surrounding Kennedy Space Center in the northern portions of the Banana and Indian Rivers.  Additionally, drought conditions produced little runoff from 2009 to 2011.

Second, the timing of the seagrass disappearance could not have been caused by algal blooms in 2009 and 2010 because there were no statistically outlying algal blooms in Brevard County during those years to kill off the seagrass in such a large quantity.

Moreover, the housing bust coupled with the wind down of NASA's Space Shuttle program left 1 out of every 5 homes on Florida's Space Coast unoccupied, according to the U.S. Census 2008-2012 American Community Survey.   Instead of a rise in over-fertilized properties in Brevard during that time, just the opposite was occurring as more and more underwater and foreclosed properties were left neglected.

Graphic Credit: SJRMD.  Tropical Storm Fay, Florida Fish and Wildlife Manatee Count, Coldest Winter, Fukushima, and Superbloom added by Brevard Times
Ignoring the 1,500 Pound Sea Cow in the Lagoon 

As the above graphic shows, there appears to be an inverse relationship with the manatee population counts and seagrass acreage whenever the manatee count exceeds around 1,700 on Florida's East Coast (the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission cautions that the published manatee survey count provides a minimum count of manatees, but it does not provide an accurate population estimate).

According to a research study performed by the University of Florida and the U.S. Geological Survey in 2012,  the record-breaking manatee population has grown so much in the last decade that they may be reclassified by wildlife management officials from endangered to  threatened.

An 800 to 1,200 pound adult sea cow can eat up 10% to 15% of its body weight daily in aquatic vegetation which mostly consists of seagrass.  According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Manatee Recovery Plan, manatees sometime graze on seagrass which leaves the possibility for regrowth - but manatees also "root" seagrass - meaning the entire plant is pulled and the underwater sediment is disturbed.  Based on those consumption rates, an average manatee can consume and/or destroy around 3 acres of seagrass a year, depending on the density of the seagrass per acre.
Has a population rebound of an endangered species ever caused a collapse in seagrass beds before?

Many scientists believe that the rebound in endangered sea turtle populations caused localized declines and/or collapses of large seagrass beds in the 1990's and 2000's.  In a scientific publication entitled Effects of excluding sea turtle herbivores from a seagrass bed: Overgrazing may have led to loss of seagrass meadows in Bermuda, research suggests that:

It is likely that the removal of the photosynthetic potential of leaves by grazing sea turtles decreased the production and storage of photosynthate in the seagrasses, slowing their growth and reducing the ability of the seagrasses to recover from unfavorable environmental conditions. This makes the effects on seagrasses of the grazing by sea turtles similar to the effects of severe light reduction. (Emphasis added).

Could manatees have consumed all the seagrass that disappeared from 2009-2011?

Even if 2,000 manatees consumed and/or destroyed 3 acres of seagrass per year, that would only amount to 18,000 acres of seagrass (2000 manatees x 3 acres x 3 years).  So manatee consumption alone would not have accounted for the total loss of approximately 30,000 acres of seagrass during 2009-2011.  Additionally, the amount of seagrass consumed by manatees should have been mitigated by the re-growth of seagrass over those three years.

However, just like in the sea turtle study, the record-breaking manatee population and corresponding increased seagrass consumption could have put enough pressure on the seagrass to reduce its ability to recover from unfavorable environmental conditions such as decreased salinity in the Lagoon from record-breaking rainfall caused by Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, the coldest winter on record in 2009-2010, drought conditions during 2009-2011, and the Superbloom during 2011-2012.

The additional pressure put on on the seagrass by an increased manatee population coupled by weather extremes could have caused a tipping point where less seagrass meant that other herbivores, with less grazing areas, put additional pressure on the remaining seagrass which started the spiraling loss of over 30,000 acres of seagrass before the Superbloom of March 2011.

Also, seagrass absorbs and stores nitrogen and phosphorous.  When manatees consume seagrass, they then discharge that stored nitrogen and phosphorous as waste which becomes free nutrients in the Lagoon.  The waste from increased manatee population could be the "internal flux of nutrients" that the Superbloom Investigation hypothesized.  Manatee waste, disturbed by severe weather in late March 2011, could also explain why the Superbloom occurred near Kennedy Space Center where there are sparse populations and military-restricted waterways.

The manatees' population comeback resulted in another extraordinary event in recent years.  Residents in Vero Beach witnessed the full extent of the sea cows' voracious appetites' end product in 2009 when a mile-long stretch of manatee fecal matter closed area beaches.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve lived along beaches all my life,” beach-goer Bill Becker told TCPalm. “It was disgusting, but mystifying. It looked like Great Dane poop all along the beach.”  
If weather, manatee overpopulation, and Fukushima fission products were the cause of the other extraordinary events, what does that mean for saving the Indian River Lagoon?

The section of the Banana River north of State Road 528, bordered by federal land and away from civilian populations is the closest sample set we have to a scientific control group for the Indian River Lagoon's issues.  The occurrence of seagrass loss, algae blooms, dolphin  and manatee deaths in that area means that hypothesized causes have to overcome a geographic logic hurdle.  Extreme weather, severe weather, Fukushima fission products, and a manatee population rebound overcome that geographic logic hurdle.  Moreover, timing is another logic hurdle that not only do those causes overcome, but actually appear to be correlated.

This also means that those extraordinary events have already come and passed and that focus should be placed on restoring the Lagoon rather than wasting precious time and resources on other issues that can be ruled out by time and geography.

There is nothing that decision-makers can do about the weather events or Fukushima fission products that have already occurred.  However, the Fukushima radiation issue could open up avenues to more government agency resources for the Lagoon.

The manatee population rebound on the other hand, is something that decision-makers can address and solve. If over 70,000 acres of seagrass could not support the manatee population, then less than 30,000 acres of the remaining seagrass most certainly cannot.

The manatees could continue to devour what remains of the seagrass until none is left and then starve or die of poisoning from eating alternative food sources.  All other animals that rely on the food web that the seagrass supports, including fish, sea turtles, dolphins, the American Bald Eagle, migratory birds, pelicans and other seabirds would also die off as a result.  If the recent rate of seagrass loss continues (10k to 15k acres per year), a total ecological collapse could occur in the Lagoon by 2015.

Three years have been squandered researching and debating every possible, but certainly less probable, reasons for the seagrass disappearance other than the manatee population rebound.  The least expensive and quickest solution would be to erect manatee exclusion barriers in strategic locations throughout the Indian River Lagoon to allow large seagrass beds to grow undisturbed.

The manatee population rebound has also resulted in a lack of genetic diversity where inbreeding could become a problem, according to UF researchers.  Intensive management of the Indian River Lagoon's manatee population should be put to the forefront as a possible solution for both the health of the Lagoon and the health of the manatee population.

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