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Brevard County Launches Clean-up After Thousands Of Dead Fish Foul Indian River Lagoon

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Marci Smith (center), with her mother Nanci Target and daughter Dawson Smith, wonders how long the dead fish will linger. Photo by Amy Green

In Brevard County leaders are launching a coordinated effort to collect thousands of dead fish fouling in the Indian River Lagoon.

The smelly carcasses have been bobbing on the lagoon’s surface since the weekend. They’ll be collected by boat and taken to the county landfill where they’ll be buried. But residents are left having to live with the smelly mess.


It’s another sunny day in Cocoa Beach, but Marci Smith’s waterfront backyard is more like a graveyard of Indian River Lagoon marine life.

Thousands of fish are floating belly-up in the canal connecting the family’s home with the Banana River, part of the Indian River Lagoon. There are so many fish, from a distance they look like wisps of foam on choppy water. But this water is calm.

“The city has told us not to touch them, not to try to remove them and just let nature take its course,” Smith says. “You don’t understand how this is going to be, how long this is going to take.”

And the smell.

“It’s very very toxic,” she says “When I first walked out on Monday morning after the fish had sort of sat and stewed overnight I was almost gagging. I put my hand over my nose because I was almost like whoa. It’s just a very strong smell.”

Smith has lived here with her husband and two young children for four years. The family enjoys boating, kayaking and watching the wildlife.

“By this time in the year when it’s getting warmer normally there would be anywhere from five to 10 manatee out there during the day splashing around, the dolphins swimming and everything,” she says.

At a nearby boat launch boaters and kayakers head out on the water.

Here there are no dead fish, but the normally clear water is a thick brown, like Nutella.

A brown tide that began in January is believed to be causing the die-off. After similar water quality problems in 2011 and 2012 killed off dolphins, pelicans and manatees and more than half of the lagoon’s sea grass several programs were launched to improve the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches the length of nearly half of Florida’s east coast.

But the lagoon’s problems have continued with on-going pollution associated with local septic tanks and fertilizer use.

Jeanette Vasbinder owns Wildside Tours, which offers catamaran tours of the Indian River Lagoon.

“This morning we took our customers back,” she says. “The smell is horrendous. We haven’t seen very many dolphins. It’s just an unpleasant place to be right now.”

She worries about how the die-off will affect her business during this, the busiest time of the year. She has lived in the area for 25 years and never has seen anything like this.

“They’re going to move eventually. They will sink, but they keep dying so I don’t know how long this cycle is going to continue.”

Brevard County is providing dumpsters where residents can discard fish they collect. They plan to meet again Friday to discuss the progress of the clean-up.

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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment and climate change at WMFE News. She is an award-winning journalist and author whose extensive reporting on the Everglades is featured in the book MOVING WATER, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and podcast DRAINED, available wherever you get your podcasts. Amy’s ... Read Full Bio »