Cruising to Vero Beach along the Intracoastal Waterway, you’ll pass through North America’s most diverse and second-largest estuary system, the 156-mile-long Indian River Lagoon. Its waters extend from Ponce de Leon Inlet south to Jupiter Inlet, encompassing the transition between temperate and subtropical climate zones.
The Indian River — as the waters are called around Vero Beach — is not really a river but an estuary, where fresh water from rain, streams and land runoff mix with salt water flooding in and out through five ocean inlets. However, the “river” is a true lagoon. Barrier islands separate it from the Atlantic, it receives a limited exchange of salt water, and it only flows near the inlets with the tide.
When winds are favorable, you can sail in the dredged ICW channel on relatively calm, protected waters. These shallow waters — a mix of salt and fresh, cooler in the northern part and warmer in the southern — create the perfect spawning ground and habitat for both temperate and tropical plants and animals. The tidal salt marshes, mangroves that protect the shoreline, and the seagrass meadows that carpet much of the bottom all shelter and feed lagoon and ocean wildlife. Smithsonian Institution scientists value an acre of this “underwater rain forest” of seagrass at $20,500. (The lagoon encompasses 353 square miles.)
Early dredging of the inlets and ICW created more than 200 spoil islands. Many of the now heavily vegetated islands are bird refuges. Cruising through this so-called “Nursery of the Atlantic,” you’ll often see dolphins, manatees, pelicans and osprey, and possibly sea turtles, wood storks and frigate birds. Scientists have documented 1,350 plant and 2,765 animal species, including 685 fish and 310 birds — more than anywhere else in North America. More than 50 species are endangered or threatened, and some live nowhere else.
Officials report that some 190,000 anglers a year seek redfish, spotted sea trout, snook and the formidable tarpon, among others, in the lagoon, contributing more than $140 million annually to the local economy.
Because of this biodiverse ecosystem, the Environmental Protection Agency designated it an “estuary of national significance” in 1990. Just cruising through, you may not see the serious threats: habitat loss from development, pollution from storm water runoff and excess nutrients, sediment quality degradation, and invasive species, along with lack of coordination between the federal government, five counties and 42 local governing authorities along the shoreline. Aware that the lagoon contributes some $730 million annually to surrounding communities, organizations are coming together to protect and enhance the waters.
We boaters can help. Dispose of trash, especially plastics and fishing line, properly on shore. Watch — but don’t harass or feed — manatees, dolphins, nesting birds and sea turtles. Avoid boating across seagrass shallows. Obey manatee zone speed limits. Basically, minimize your presence as you enjoy this rich, diverse treasure of nature.
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.