Anglers ask FWC to limit spraying

CLEWISTON — Fishermen who packed the meeting room in the Clewiston Youth Center on Aug. 30 asked the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) representatives to “spray smart.”

Anglers and fishing guides asked that spraying of invasive exotic plants be limited to three months a year, that spraying be banned during fish spawning seasons and that non-chemical methods be used to remove non-native vegetation from the Lake Okeechobee when possible.

Water hyacinth on Lake Okeechobee.

The meeting was set up for public comment only, so FWC representatives wrote down questions from the audience but did not answer them.

Many in the audience echoed professional angler Scott Martin’s suggestion to limit spraying, and avoid spraying during the winter tourist season.

“We need to make some areas off limits to spraying,” said Mr. Martin.

“If we make those areas off limits to spraying, the fish populations will go crazy,” he said. “People who come down here for tournaments or for vacation, they’re going to catch the biggest bass of their lives. They’re going to go back to Michigan and Kentucky and tell them how good the fishing was.”

“I have been guiding on the lake for 35 years,” said Chet Douthit. “The lake has gone through many, many changes. What has happened in the last eight-to-10 years is an absolute crime. It has absolutely destroyed our vegetation. We’ve lost habitat and without habitat, you don’t have any wildlife.”

He said spraying to eliminate the non-native invasive plants in the summer makes sense because the vegetation doesn’t grow in the winter. “If we have to spray, spray in the summer,” he said.

“The lake is still good. It could be the number one lake in the world if we take care of it,” he said.

He said they should try again to remove some of the muck from the bottom of the lake manually.

“They tried to scrape the lake once in the 35 years I’ve been here,” he said, adding that the project stopped because they found Native American artifacts.

Mike Lendl, representing the King of the Glades bass tournament based in Fort Lauderdale, said too often he has heard fishermen complain they “can’t catch nothing because they’ve sprayed.”

“You can see the drop in catches,” he said. “The bass aren’t spreading out the way they did in the old days.”

He said if the weekly spraying doesn’t stop, it will kill the lake.

Phillip Roland, a Clewiston city commissioner, said he plans to take a resolution to the cities and counties all around the lake and ask the area governmental bodies to support limiting the spraying to three months a year.

“There is no way you can keep spraying the lake like it is,” he said. “The water clarity has changed.”

Mr. Roland said back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug three canals — Kissimmee River, Harney Pond and Indian Prairie — and drained 5,500 square miles of land into a 700-square-mile lake.

“The Kissimmee valley used to have 2 feet of water on it. It came into the lake clean,” he said.

He said when it was established, the spraying program was only to keep the Lake Okeechobee waterway open from the St. Lucie waterway to Moore Haven.

“If they spray smart, and do it right, we can bring the lake back,” he said. “The problems with the lake are political. We need to cut the budget for spraying.”

He said in the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) they plant hydrilla, and on the lake they kill it.

Gary Ritter, of Florida Farm Bureau and a member of the Okeechobee City Council, said he is concerned about the nutrient loading into the lake when the sprayed vegetation dies and falls to the lake bottom.

He said the farmers are doing a lot of nutrient management with Best Management Practices (BMPs).

“One thing I don’t see addressed is nutrient management internal of the Lake Okeechobee,” he continued. “When you spray vegetation and it all dies off, what is the fate of those nutrients?”

He said they need to consider the internal nutrient loading of the lake and how much it contributes to the algal blooms.

Carmen Patti said he has been fishing Lake Okeechobee for 40 years.

“I have seen it go through changes, some from Mother Nature, some from spraying. Who decides when enough is enough? What your guys spray is good for fish cover,” he continued. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Many at the meeting alleged that the problem is the contractors are not careful to target the exotics, and kill areas of native vegetation. FWC officials asked fishermen to note the locations and report any problem areas they see on the lake.

Mary Ann Martin said the spraying is killing native vegetation as well as the exotics.

She said this summer the lake has suffered from turbidity.

“What solves the problem of turbidity? It’s grass,” she said. “Grass is good. It cleans the water. It’s the whole filtration system on this lake. The peppergrass is gone. If you stop spraying, it will return.

“When they started spraying, the reason for the spraying was to keep the waterways open,” she said.

The expanded spraying program has hurt the lake, she said.

“Once it’s lost, you won’t get it back,” she said. “We want the lake to get healthier every year.”

Neal Stark is the founder of Fishing with America’s Finest, a non-profit organization that takes veterans fishing as a form of therapy.

He said he has seen the loss of vegetation from spraying in the Lake Okeechobee area and in the Everglades not only hurt the fisheries, but also reduce the other wildlife.

“We used to have to slow your boat down in the Everglades due to all the birds,” he said.

Now you don’t see the blue herons, the egrets or the spoonbills like you once did, he added.

“Spraying is not working anymore,” he offered.

Lisa Walker expressed concern that the chemicals used for spraying might be harmful to wildlife and to any people who might come in contact with the water. She said the birds that eat the bugs and snails that were exposed to the chemicals will ingest those chemicals.

Dr. Paul Gray of Florida Audubon said he has a lot of the same concerns as the fishermen.

Jeff Patterson, of Lakeport, said FWC should be doing more to improve the health of the lake.

“One rumor is they are doing this to kill the lake so they can raise it up to 19 feet and use it for storage,” he said.

Steamer Alligator, Palatka, FL, 1899.

Caloosahatchee at LaBelle in 1939.

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