Airboating the St. Johns River after Hurricane Irma


by: James Sparvero
posted: 21 September 2017

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Higher water levels on the St. Johns River, which divides the Brevard and Orange County lines, are a welcomed sight for alligators and cattle, but it’s bad news for thousands of fish, environmental experts say.

“Everything that’s white out here is a dead fish. You’ve got thousands of fish just right in this small area,” said Derrick Lockhart, owner of Midway Airboat Rides.

Airboat on St. Johns River after Hurricane Irma

Out on the river on an airboat, Lockhart told News 6 Thursday that most of the fish are Tilapia.

He said there’s also bass, brim and bluegill, all suffocating after Hurricane Irma rose the river to its highest level since Tropical Storm Fay in 2008.

“That water floods over the grasses, and all the nutrients up on the flats absorb the oxygen out of the water very, very quickly, and that’s why we’re having these fish kills,” Lockhart said.

Fish kills are usually the result of too little oxygen in the water, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission say.

“Weather patterns, water temperature, depth and quality, amount and type of plant growth, fish community structure, along with the presence of viruses and bacteria, are all factors that are necessary to trigger a fish kill,” according to the FWC website.

The Midway Airboat Rides owner said after Hurricane Irma, fish began dying immediately.

For the past week, he said dead fish rise to the top of the river and even in the Midway parking lot off of Highway 50 in Christmas.

“We’ve pulled some out, probably five-, six-, seven-pounders,” said Lockhart.

He said Midway staff is cleaning up a wheelbarrow full of dead fish every morning. News 6 watched vultures Thursday polish off even more dead fish.

When asked when he thinks the fish kill will stop, Lockhart told News 6, “I don’t think it has to do with the water receding. I think it has to do with plants in the water actually producing some oxygen for the fish to breathe.”

Lockhart said each day after Irma, it appears fewer fish are dying than the day before.

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