“The key is getting out there and explaining the problem because we’re the problem. We’re the cause of what we’re seeing — the algae blooms, the eutrophication — but we can also be the solution.” – Kelli Hunsucker

Kelli Hunsucker has been fascinated with water since she was a child. Today, she holds a PhD in Biological Oceanography and a MS in Chemical Oceanography from the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), as well as a BS in Oceanography from Stockton University. As a research assistant professor of Ocean Engineering and Sciences at FIT and the outreach coordinator for the school’s Indian River Lagoon Research Institute (IRLRI), she is making a difference in reviving the Indian River Lagoon.

JR: What inspired you as a child to pursue a career in marine science?

KH: Believe it or not, my great aunt was a nun and a physicist. She wrote science books, taught at a college and knew everything there was to know about the ocean. From a very young age, I made her tell me everything she knew. I remember she made a little ocean in a bottle by using water, food coloring and vegetable oil. I held onto that forever. I just always had a passion for science and the ocean.

JR: What is the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute, and what are its goals?

KH: The Indian River Lagoon Research Institute started as a result of the severe algae blooms we saw in 2011, which is when we realized the lagoon was in crisis. We started with brown bag lunches, just faculty and staff at the university coming together, knowing we needed to do something. Today we have more than 20 faculty and staff — with engineering, science and educational backgrounds — all working to develop solutions and ensure the Indian River Lagoon is healthy.

JR: What is the relationship between the health of the Indian River Lagoon and the state’s ecosystem?

KH: The Indian River Lagoon is 156 miles long and represents 40 percent of Florida’s east coast. A rather large chunk of the state’s population lives on or near the lagoon, which actually spans between the temperate and tropical climate zones. There are approximately 4,000 different species that call the lagoon home. The economic output from the lagoon is about 7.6 billion dollars, so if the lagoon isn’t healthy, it affects commercial and leisure fishing, boating, eco-tourism and the value of homes. We’re also going to continue to see these algae blooms, which can lead to massive fish kills and the demise of other fauna and flora that rely on oxygen in the water. And before we know it, we’ll just have this dead system.

JR: How are humans contributing to these problems?

KH: Much of what we’re seeing now is damage from the past. When people use a lot of fertilizer and it gets washed into the lagoon, eutrophication occurs, which is the excess of nutrients in the water. Old septic tanks in certain areas are leaking and also causing excess nutrients to enter the lagoon. One of the other issues is muck, which is a mayonnaise-like dew that sits on the bottom of the lagoon and accumulates over time. This is the result of grass clippings and yard waste that find their way into the lagoon. Nothing can live in this, and muck accumulation is literally 14 ft. deep in some locations. One of the scary things about muck is it accumulates and holds onto these excess nutrients, which slowly seep out and into the water columns, providing fuel for the algae blooms.

JR: Is this damage reversible?

KH: We can definitely do it. We’ve been dredging the muck out, which is helping. The key is educating people to prevent grass clippings and yard waste from going into storm drains and consequently the lagoon, not use as much fertilizer and check their septic tanks for leaks. People who live along the lagoon should also seriously consider implementing living shorelines instead of sea walls. By doing these simple things, we can reverse any damage that has been done.

JR: The outreach coordinator position is about education and awareness. Why is this important?

KH: The key is getting out there and explaining the problem because we’re the problem. We’re the cause of what we’re seeing — the algae blooms, the eutrophication — but we can also be the solution, so educating people on what’s actually happening and what they can do to make a difference is critical. It’s not like flipping a light switch, and it’s not an overnight fix, but we need people to invest in the Indian River Lagoon and take the steps necessary to ensure a healthy ecosystem. Outreach with children is particularly important because you want them to become stewards of the environment and understand the importance of sustainability at a young age.

JR: What do residents of the Space Coast need to know?

KH: Start thinking more sustainably in regards to everything, because everything we do has an impact on the ecosystem. We’re leaving footprints behind, whether we want to or not. There are simple things we can do to improve the health of the lagoon; we simply need to be aware of them. Also, I urge residents to support local entities trying to help restore the lagoon, such as FIT, the Marine Resources Council and the Brevard Zoo. ◆

For more information on the Indian River Lagoon Research Institute or to learn more about how you can do your part to help, contact Kelli Hunsucker at 321-674-7334 or khunsucker@fit.edu.