Reports of a vast number of redfish deaths in the St. Johns River have Jacksonville residents, and many more throughout Florida, worried. The river is host to hundreds of species of birds, fish and other wildlife and, at 310 miles long, it flows through 12 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Since May 25, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has received at least 49 reports of dead fish in the river. Catalina Brown, a scientist with the FFWC, says the deaths cannot be attributed to the recent gulf oil spill, but are instead the result of a recent rise in algal blooms — blooms perhaps exacerbated by local industry runoff.

According to riverhugger.com (the blog of St. Johns Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization that acts as an advocate for the river), blooms of San Mateo algae and Picolata algae have been spotted (and smelled — algae are notoriously acrid) everywhere from Clay County to St. Johns County. Brown says that water samples analyzed by FFWC staff indicate the presence of Aphanizomenon c.f. flos-aquae, a freshwater bloom that occurs naturally during summer months.

Algal blooms almost always lead to fish kills. Not only do algae release toxins, but they use up copious amounts of oxygen when they die. They also cut off sunlight needed for underwater plant life to flourish.

According to Brown, redfish are the only species suffering thus far: “We have not received any reports of other affected animals in the area of this bloom, but certain species of algae could potentially be harmful to fish and wildlife, domestic animals and to human health.”

These algal blooms, though typical, generally occur on a much more limited scale, and not this early in the summer. Jimmy Orth, of St. Johns Riverkeeper, says that these recent cases are simply astounding: “Frankly, I’ve worked for the Riverkeeper for six years and I’ve lived here my whole life and I have never seen it this bad.” Shortly before speaking with The Florida Independent, Orth had received a telephone call from a resident reporting 24 dead fish near a riverfront home.

Though many have deemed this a naturally occurring phenomenon, Orth is quick to point out that it has implications beyond dying redfish: “These algal blooms disrupt the entire ecological system. They kill off fish, plant life and, because of the toxins that are released, create respiratory irritation for humans.”

And though members of the FFWC have shied away from pinning the blame on anything other than nature, Orth views the problem as one indicative of river neglect. “Our river is sick, and these fish deaths are a symptom,” he says. “It’s hard to point the finger at any one industry when there are numerous culprits, but the root problem is the amount of excessive nutrients — namely, phosphorus and nitrogen — in the water, which come from runoff.”

That runoff comes from residential fertilizers, community waste-water and large corporations like Georgia-Pacific, one of the single-largest contributors of nutrients to the river. GP’s Paltka-based pulp and paper mill sits on nearly 6,000 acres of Rice Creek, a tributary of the St. Johns, and contributes both phosphorus and nitrogen to the river. And, coincidentally enough, a large algal bloom was recently spotted in the creek.

Linda Young, the director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, says that these so-called “naturally occurring” algal blooms are anything but: “The organisms that comprise the algal blooms may be natural but the blooms themselves are not. They are purely the result of excessive nutrients.” And, according to Young, these nutrients are the result of lax rules for big businesses like Georgia-Pacific and Jacksonville’s own JEA: “Georgia-Pacific has been operating on an expired permit for the past few years, but the permit doesn’t really do much good anyway. The permit has no limit on nutrient discharge and any promosed new permits will have no limits, either. The state is working to protect these companies, instead of protecting us or our water.”

GP claims to have spent $250 million improving its Palatka mill as part of a larger enhancement project — a $700 million cleanup launched in 2007. According to GP’s website, the Palatka mill’s phosphorus and nitrogen discharges have been greatly reduced over the past 10 years (phosphorus by 73 percent, nitrogen by 50 percent). GP employees claim their permit is up-to-date and, have created an entire web page devoted to defending themselves against such claims. (The company did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection aims to implement nutrient standards for Florida waters but, so far, regulations are just in the developmental stages.

At the very least, the recent spike in redfish deaths serves to open the eyes of those who wouldn’t normally pay attention to chemicals in the river. Orth says that the fact that redfish are dying is a wake-up call to many: “If there’s ever an issue with catfish dying, people don’t take much notice. But once you get sportfish involved, people take notice.”

[Pic via flickr.com/photos/kirkols]

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