It started out as idle chatter over a few glasses of wine, a pair of college and surfing buddies exploring an exotic surf adventure. Thirty years had passed since they had last spoken. That evening evolved into a twice yearly "senior citizen surf tour" to some of the globe's most treasured surf spots.
Last May Duane De Freese and Mike Ryan traveled to El Salvador's Pacific coast where mountains cascade to a rugged coastline. A weathered hand-painted sign welcomes visitors to the village of Mizata, long celebrated for its warm water and uncrowded waves. El Salvador's coastline is blessed with more than a dozen world class right point breaks which swell over rock bottoms on the ocean floor to form larger, faster waves that maintain their speed and size for the length of the ride. Mizata Point is one of a number of world-class surf destinations there that attract surfers from around the globe.
A few weeks after his El Salvador adventure I met up with De Freese at Sebastian's working waterfront on the Indian River. When I inquired about the Mizata Point experience De Freese nodded his head and delivered a wide, knowing smile. A trim man with a thatch of silver hair, at age 62, he has never quite shaken the surfing bug.
De Freese's affinity for the power of water took shape growing up in East Rockaway, N. Y. a half-mile from the Atlantic where he spent his time surfing and fishing, reveling in the beach lifestyle. As a teenager he worked in his parent's garage learning the art of building a surfboard-- the shaping, sanding and glassing. After acquiring a degree in zoology from the University of Rhode Island, De Freese packed his bags and headed down to Melbourne with its nearby beaches and earned a graduate degree and Ph. D. in marine biology at the Florida Institute of Technology.
For more than three decades De Freese has been one of the key Florida voices championing the economic and environmental values associated with common-sense ocean and coastal conservation.
"A life-long love of the ocean and waterways has shaped most of my personal life and career decisions," reflects De Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon Council.
"I can still vividly recall surfing at our local beach when a stream of garbage, including bags of needles and syringes, washed up on shore. When I look back, that incident sent me down the path of becoming a marine scientist and working to clean up the ocean, estuaries and waterways."
De Freese says there is no better place to be a marine scientist interested in diversity than Central Florida. They explore the mysteries of deep-sea creatures and organisms, from countless marine animals to the plankton they eat, and everything else in between. Recognized nationally, De Freese has worked to change public perception about the value of ocean and coastal research and conservation.
His message is simple: "the oceans and their living resources are an engine that drives the economy and quality of life of Florida and the nation in the 21st century."
Protect what you love.
In the early 1990s De Freese departed a career as a professor to become the first program director of the $55 million lands acquisition program in Brevard County for conservation, passive recreation, and environmental education. He spearheaded the effort to obtain the donation of the old Chuck's Steak House Restaurant property in southern Melbourne Beach from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.
The long-range vision was the expansion of the Environmentally Endangered Lands (EEL) Program's coastal and sea turtle research and education center. Located within the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, its shoreline is the most important nesting area for loggerhead and green sea turtles in the world as well as a vital one for the endangered leatherback. Initially a far-fetched idea, De Freese helped turn the vision into reality with the opening of the EEL Barrier Island Center on A1A in 2008.
De Freese worked as a scientist for ten years at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a non-profit partner of SeaWorld, that provides scientific solutions to conflicts that arise between human activity and the natural world. On the commercial side De Freese was employed by a pair of private marine companies, including AquaFiber Technologies that harvests naturally occurring algae and removes phosphorus and other nutrients from surface waters that lead to pollution.
"In today's world thinking 'outside of the box' is an essential part of scientific innovation and discovery," De Freese insists.
A year ago De Freese was tabbed as the head of the Indian River Lagoon Council (IRLC) that serves as the host of a reorganized Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. This narrow water corridor stretches 156 miles from Ponce Inlet in Volusia County down to Jupiter Inlet at the north end of Palm Beach County spanning five counties and encompassing more than 50 cities and towns.
Headquartered in the historic former Sebastian Elementary School, IRLC is just up the road from "Fisherman's Landing Sebastian" a working waterfront created to promote commercial fishing in Florida and its heritage. Sebastian is home to Pelican Island which President Theodore Roosevelt designated as the first national wildlife refuge in 1903.
In his role at IRLC, De Freese works in tandem with federal, state and local government agencies, scientific research organizations, academic institutions, elected officials, industry and the general public. The goal is to breathe new life into the lagoon. One of the great estuarine systems in North America, it's fringed by mangroves that are a perfect habitat for wading and shore birds. The lagoon is also one of the nation's most threatened ecosystems.
Last March De Freese's job got exponentially more difficult with the lagoon's latest "superbloom" of brown algae that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead and rotting fish mostly in northern Brevard County. More than 30 species died in the kill-off. Scientists reported that low levels of dissolved oxygen in the lagoon’s waters led to the fish dying of suffocation. Adequate dissolved oxygen is necessary for good water quality, and is essential for fish and other marine life.
Five years ago when a massive superbloom of green algae smothered the lagoon, 47,000 acres of sea grass was lost and was linked to deaths of a significant number of manatees, dolphins, pelicans and other wildlife. Since the 1970s the health of the estuary has been impacted by the explosive growth of town populations surrounding the lagoon. The population density and chronic pollution from commercial fertilizer, septic tanks, agriculture runoff has created an ecosystem that basically has lost its resilience.
While there has been some improvement in parts of the lagoon, as of early July water quality in general throughout the lagoon is poor with continued low levels of sea grass coverage, according to De Freese.
One of the most alarming clues of human impact has been the dying off of sea grass all the way to its roots. Sea grass serves as an underwater forest in the lagoon and serves as an essential nursery, shelter and food source for tiny snails, oysters, sea horses, loggerhead turtles, game fish and manatees. As algae builds in the lagoon it can block sunlight the sea grass requires to photosynthesize and grow.
"Being a closed system the lagoon is so fragile," explains Dr. Grant Gilmore, a resident of Vero Beach. Gilmore has been studying the fish community and ecology of Florida and the Caribbean for the past 35 years.
"Sea grass is very important for the lagoon's health. When light can't penetrate more than about two and a half feet, sea grass can't thrive in deeper waters. That really impacts fish and other marine life. Grouper are born in the ocean and come into the lagoon in late April or early May when they're about an inch long. Sea grass beds provide the juvenile grouper food and shelter from predators."
Gilmore has known De Freese since they were graduate students at Florida Tech in the early 1980s.
"Duane has his work cut out for him, but one of his major talents is his ability to communicate with people," Gilmore says. "That's not typical of marine biologists who won't leave the lab. He has a broad vision and is very good at bringing new ideas to people. Taking scientific knowledge marine biologists have gained to the general public. Helping them understand what the issues are so something constructive can be done. We need a diversity of people and ideas to restore the lagoon. That will bring about discourse and disagreements and Duane's not afraid to speak out."
Many factors contributed to the winter algae bloom that grew so thick that the estuary took on a murky brown glow. El Niño brought heavy rains in January and polluted runoff and windy days stirred up the lagoon. Those rains delivered a gush of polluted storm water from septic tanks, leaking sewer systems, densely fertilized lawns fed the superbloom. Those excess nutrients are trapped in the system that form mayonnaise-like muck deposits.
"We need to remove the muck and decrease those nitrogen and phosphorous build-ups, but it doesn't make sense to do one without the other," De Freese explains. "Early recommendations call for the speeding up of muck dredging permits and a multi-year muck dredging plan of action.
"Over the past week or so I've seen five backyards of homes on the water being fertilized. This is during the June through September ban on fertilizer. Living in Florida, we need to have a bigger picture of what's good landscaping for a coastal community. How about bagging your grass clippings or dropping them into trash cans? As a homeowner you need to address old or failing septic systems. It all adds up."
Restoration efforts of the lagoon at the municipality level are critical. Following the 2004 hurricanes, Vero Beach officials searched for ways to take homes off septic systems. Last June Florida Today reported that Vero Beach embarked on much cheaper way to link homeowners on septic tanks to sewer systems: leave the tank and drain field in the ground, then pump and pipe the liquid waste to the city's sewer system. The city's hybrid Septic Tank Effluent Pumping System (STEP) project diverts septic system waste that seeps into groundwater via drain fields to a central sewage treatment plant.
"Cities are hugely valuable and important, they lead the way," De Freese says. "But so is a citizen to action. Clearly we have to change the way we see ourselves in regards to water. It's about education and personal responsibility."
De Freese cites a healthy lagoon as a key attraction for the streams of young engineers, technicians and researchers arriving in the region thanks to the recent surge in hiring by aviation and aerospace industries.
"These companies setting up here know they'll attract the best and the brightest who value our high quality assets of recreational sports and arts and culture that are region affords them," De Freese observes. "Quality water is a key component of that equation, so it's as much an economic development as an environmental story."
Beyond the IRLC, De Freese currently serves as vice chair of the Board of Directors for the Florida Ocean Alliance that is committed to positioning Florida as an international leader to integrate ocean conservation, education, and responsible economic development.
The ocean and surrounding and waterways support a multitude of industries and activities from fishing to recreational tourism. More than 1.2 million non-residents came to fish throughout Florida in 2013. The state led the nation in total angler expenditures with almost $5 billion dollars spent, supporting more than 80,200 jobs, according to the Florida Tax Watch organization. Traveling to the Sunshine State by air, visitors are struck by the abundance of surface water-- 50,000 miles of rivers and streams, 7,800 lakes, and 4,000 square miles of estuaries, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
"For many, many years we've taken these assets for granted," De Freese acknowledges. "That was a big mistake. We are at a critical point now. We need to recognize their value. The question is not what will it cost. It's what is the return on the investment. What will it cost us if we don't protect it. Our tourism industry will collapse. Same with the huge recreational fishing industry and water sports.
"Look, the water quality in the Indian River Lagoon is either an asset that draws people to our region or it repels people. To me it's very much our collective front yard. If it is polluted or health advisories are being sent out, who will want to come."
So how will we know when the Indian River is restored?
“My definition of success is when we have robust oyster, clam, crab and commercial fishing industries once more,” De Freese replies. “Crabs, oysters, crabs, shrimp and fishes that are locally grown, locally sourced, locally eaten. We've drastically reduced smoking and now have dolphin-safe tuna. We changed the thinking. It was a paradigm shift.
“If we approach Indian River Lagoon restoration from the grassroots up, we’ll get it done. The full solution lies in a full effort by all of us. From individual to community, from government agency to industry - we are all in this together.”