|The paddlers discuss their observations!|
A sterling and copious moon illuminates the vast and lucid sky above the Indian River Lagoon. We’re at the Crossroads, near the St. Lucie Inlet; behind us is Long Island, and in front sits Rocky Point. It’s here, every day for thousands of years, the Lagoon’s confluences have mixed with the north and south forks of the St. Lucie River and the Atlantic Ocean. It is from here, lying in my sleeping bag on top of Jim Moir's boat dock, our host, and this year's winner of the Disney Conservationist of the Year Award, that I contemplate the future of America's richest estuary.
A group of us have paddled together over 170 miles (New Smyrna Beach to Jupiter Inlet), camping on numerous spoil islands and shorelines, and eating fish from her waters along the way. Traveling eight-to-ten miles a day has set the pace needed for us to clearly see her dynamic changes and to better understand her constant routine.
Maybe the Indian River Lagoon hasn't changed so much since the white man first sailed and paddled down her shores. In 1884, James Alexander Henshall, author of Camping and Cruising in Florida, wrote of the mighty gales which could chop and discombobulate her shallow waters, wreaking hell and havoc with paddlers and sailors alike, within the blink of a blind mullet's eye. On the IRL Paddle Adventure we experienced her gales, and they taught us the winds and tides still rule. Henshall also wrote about collecting driftwood for campfires and cooking; we did the same to warm our souls and soles on her sandy beaches. Together we found that like a hundred years ago, the sunsets and moonrises gracing her horizon can take your breath away, and raccoons and rats patrolling her shorelines can carry away your provisions in a heartbeat, if given the proper chance.
Take my word for it, after paddling and camping along her entire length, I want to believe not so much has changed here along this majestic and wondrous IRL coast during the past hundred years or so. Yet, despite these observations, there is less seagrass, crabs, shrimp, gamefish, forage fish, turtles, bottle-nose dolphin, waterfowl, and filter feeders like oysters, clams, sea squirts, menhaden, etc. I dearly want to believe she's the same girl she once was, (the one I fell in love with some forty years ago) regardless if there are more people, homes, condos, businesses, roads, lawns, lights, ditches, causeways, spillways, byways, algae, bacteria, sea walls and pollution connecting to her.
A hundred years ago, an early outdoor photojournalist, St. George Rathbone, wrote of his pilgrimage to Florida, where he encountered endless beds of oysters, massive schools of game fish and mats of seagrass spanning the Lagoon's girth, so thick they restricted his vessel’s passage. Today this is not the case.
On this clear moonlit night, Jim told me it will take courage to make the right decision as to which way we will head now that we've both physically and spiritually reached our crossroads.
As we’ve paddled her length, and the more I’ve seen of her, the more I see her as our ultimate connection between nature and humankind, as I witness her biodiversity dwindle. In my eyes the time has come; our nation's greatest lagoon is sick. She's very ill, slowly dying a death of a thousand cuts. She has been injected with fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides and many other poisons; diked by seawalls, causeways, fences, rocks, rubble, etc. and permanently altered by dredges, power plants, boat wakes, fences, impoundments, climate change, front end loaders, chainsaws, dynamite, cranes, jetties, docks, piers, ports, locks, and so forth.
The negative results of these altercations are apparent to me. From south of Port St. John in the Indian River, through the Barge Canal and past Sykes Creek and the Banana River Lagoon, we saw little or no seagrass until we reached Vero Beach. Where we once saw spartina grass (under certain conditions spartina is the world's most prolific habitat; it produces a greater biomass than a rainforest per acre), mangroves and natural shorelines thirty years ago, we now see seawalls, docks, massive waterfront homes with bright green, chemically-enhanced lawns. Kudos to the folks who came up with naming Florida’s choice of coastal sod, St. Augustine; it sounds so Floridian.
She's our nation's greatest refuge for fish, birds and marine mammals. She’s our nation's greatest marine nursery, a sanctuary for numerous protected species, and thousands of other animal, fish and plant species. To think we would all stand by and assist in her death is unthinkably depressing to me.
After reading this, hopefully you're asking yourself what needs to be corrected to save her, and what chances does she have to survive?
Today I read about the decline of our planet's biodiversity from Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity, “Most disturbing of all, as a result of all these actions taken together, we are disrupting what are called ‘ecosystem services,’ that is, the various ways that organisms, and the sum total of their interactions with each other and with the environments in which they live, function to keep all life on this planet, including human life, alive.” Despite her terrible decline, the Indian River Lagoon still provides one of the world's greatest ecosystem services.
Here's what we need to do if we want to save her. Collectively, we must become more aware of our choices, and how these choices we make on land directly influence the health of our watershed. We must limit our concern for ourselves, and increase our concern for our environment if we want to survive the next century.
Unfortunately, some would say, we the people are probably too cheap, greedy and under-educated to save her. You can call it foolishness or whatever you wish, but I have an underlying hope, or a serious faith, that things can change in a positive way and we the people can conquer ourselves, and in the future improve our relationship with our planet. Let's hope so, ‘cause she's hurting.
Rodney Smith, CEO of Little Pond Publishing;and author of Catching Made Easy and Enjoying Life on the Indian River Lagoon is a visionary and community leader who like to share his tales. Download these books digitally on Amazon, iTunes and Barnes and Noble by searching "Rodney Smith+Name of book"; or order the soft-covered books online! See all of Rodney's upcoming events and exploits at www.rodneysmithmedia.com.