By Chris Fish
BREVARD -- A Florida Institute of Technology Faculty member received a $250,000 grant this month to study and track the environmental problems the Indian River Lagoon is currently facing.
The St. Johns River Water Management District donated the grant to Kevin Johnson, associate professor of oceanography and environmental science at Florida Tech.
Mr. Johnson will use the grant to track the factors affecting superblooms in the northern portion of the lagoon.
"The microscopic and planktonic water column, where the (lagoon) blooms are occurring, is an ecosystem unto itself, complete with competitors, grazers and predators," he said in an email. "The nuisance algae, which has caused sea grass die-offs and other problems, are the primary producers in the ecosystem, and I am seeking to better understand the primary grazers of the algae and the role they play in controlling algal populations."
Grazing is a type of feeding, in which the organism being eaten from is not generally killed, such as an herbivore feeding off plants.
Harmful algal blooms in the lagoon are becoming more common with the recent brown tide, which primarily results from a species of algae, known as "Aureoumbra Lagunensis."
Experts have largely associated these blooms with the recent loss of sea grass habitats, dietary problems in manatees and other issues in the lagoon.
Mr. Johnson said that the grant's funding will be split between laboratory experiments and field sampling.
For field samples, Mr. Johnson said that he would identify the key planktonic grazers living in the lagoon, and determine its distribution and abundance.
To do this, Mr. Johnson said that samples will be collected using small boats and plankton nets every two weeks in the regions of Titusville, Cocoa, the Mosquito Lagoon, Banana River and various areas in Melbourne.
"This type of sampling is labor intensive, both in the field and in the lab, as every sample must be scrutinized for hours under the microscope for identifications and counts," he said. "At the same time, there are other databases tracking the abundance of the harmful algae themselves, so we are hoping to see what grazers are correlated with the presence of algal blooms."
Mr. Johnson said laboratory experiments would also include conducting plankton-feeding experiments.
"Certain grazers on the algal bloom will be selected for feeding tests in the laboratory," he said. "My students and I will determine what algae they eat and how fast they eat it."
Mr. Johnson said discovering a cure for the recent ailments the lagoon is facing will not be an easy task.
"The occurrence of harmful algal blooms in the (lagoon) is likely due to a confluence of problems and event, leading to a 'perfect storm,' which enabled the unbalanced blooms to occur," he said. "Possible contributors to the blooms include excess nutrients, unusual environment conditions and also failure of the food web, or grazing."