Florida’s Special Sponge for Soaking up Pollution: Fish – Facts So Romantic

In the swampy center of Florida, 15 miles northwest of Orlando, lies Lake Apopka, a 30,000-acre monument to the transformative power of fish.

Apopka may be almost exactly the same size as nearby Disney World, but it’s far from a tourist attraction. For decades the lake served as an agricultural dumping ground for adjacent citrus groves and vegetable farms, which pumped Apopka full of pesticides and fertilizers. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff spawned chronic algal blooms, turning water into pea soup and shading out aquatic vegetation. In the late 1990s, hundreds of pelicans, storks, and other birds died en masse after devouring pesticide-tainted fish. Alligators failed to breed. Farmworkers grew sick.

Gizzard shad, the curse and savior of Lake ApopkaBrian Gratwicke via NatureServe

Over the years, the state tried various tactics to clean up Apopka, like buying up farmland to prevent more nitrogen and phosphorus from entering the lake. Though keeping out new pollutants helped, such measures did nothing to dispel the legacy of nutrients buried in sediment at the lake’s bottom. “The material at the bottom is very soft, and it’s easily mixed,” says John Higman, environmental scientist at the St. Johns River Water…

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