A primary focus of the Florida Center for Coastal and Human Health is on the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), an estuary that covers 40% of Florida’s east coast. An estuary is a mix of freshwater from inland and saltwater from the ocean, creating a brackish environment. The IRL ecosystem is 156 miles long, contains 6 inlets, and impacts 6 counties, 45 cities and 1.6 million residents. There are over 4,000 plant and animal species that have been documented within the IRL and its watershed, naming it one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in North America. Due to its biological importance, and an estimated $8 billion annual economic value to the state of Florida, Congress designated the IRL as an “Estuary of National Significance”
Unfortunately, the Indian River Lagoon is also one of the most impacted estuaries in the country. Recent shifts within the Lagoon’s ecosystem have resulted in extreme and unprecedented Harmful Algal Blooms that are not only more diverse than other areas in the United States, but also persist for longer periods of time and produce a wider range of harmful toxins. Many of these issues are linked to human activities in and around the IRL ecosystem and they indicate that the Lagoon may have reached a critical tipping point.