FWC asked to stop chemical spraying of aquatic plants

ST. AUGUSTINE — At the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Dec. 12 meeting, concerned citizens spoke out against excessive chemical spraying of aquatic plants.

“I’ve spent the better part of the last six months trying to figure out what is going on with the red tide,” said Jim Abernethy, author of the “Stop the State-Sanctioned Poisoning of Our Lakes and Rivers” petition on change.org.

“I’m here today to challenge something that we are doing.

“I looked into red tide. After interviewing lots of scientists, I came to the conclusion it is definitely a nutrient loading problem,” he said.

“Certainly the hurricane stirred this up,” he added.

“I looked at water management quality testing, and it says in there that between 85 and 92 percent of all of the phosphorus and nitrogen (flowing into Lake Okeechobee) comes from the tributaries north of the lake, which is contrary to everything that is being reported in most news stations, which I attribute that to lack of investigative time.”

So “I looked at the northern tributaries from Ocala all the way down and interviewed a bunch of scientists,” Mr. Abernathy continued. He said he also interviewed a lot of fishermen.

“We have these freshwater systems that are being run into what the fishermen refer to as ‘mud holes.’ How that happens is because of the herbicide use of aquatic plant management.

“I actually went to these so-called mud holes — scientists refer to them as dead zones.

“Basically what I could see, is we spray these herbicides — one of them that I have the most problem with is glyphosate.

Within between 30 and 90 days, the herbicides disintegrate back into their basic components, one of which is phosphate, he said. In addition, the aquatic plants killed by the herbicides die, and fall to the lake bottom to decompose, adding to the nutrient load in the lake.

“If we go to lakes that are not using herbicide management, the lakes are crystal clear,” he said.

“Mechanical harvest has a tremendous advantage,” he continued. “The plants don’t die and accumulate on the bottom and turn into mud.”

“Fourteen countries have already banned glyphosate,” he said. He asked the FWC to consider other alternatives to aquatic plant control.

“Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the United States,” said Mary Ann Martin, owner of Roland Martin Marina & Resort of Clewiston. “I saw this lake 40 years ago when I first came to Clewiston, and it was the most impressive piece of water I had ever seen in my life. As far as you could see was peppergrass, standing grass and lots of fishermen. The trails ran through the peppergrass and it was beautiful.

“I want to tell you that Lake Okeechobee is not well,” Ms. Martin continued.

“We are so worried about our lake. We have lost 70 percent of the grass in the lake, which helps get our lake alive.”

She said due to the excessive chemical spraying on the lake, the habitat is gone.

“We would like to have 40,000 acres of submerged grass on the lake, but right now it is at 5,000 acres and it is declining,” she said.

“We need to spray less, and burn more,” she said.

Fire would keep the lake “healthy, wealthy and wise for the fishermen.”

“There has been a catastrophe in Florida, and I’m not talking about Hurricane Michael,” said Ramon Iglesias, general manager of Roland Martin Marina and chief of the Martin Marine Center Series fishing tournaments. “I’m talking about the spraying of herbicides at a tune of $23.5 million. That number is $23.5 million worth of poison being poured into the lakes all over the State of Florida.”

He said on Lake Okeechobee alone, $2.5 million is spent each year on herbicide spraying.

Between the high water and the spraying, it has contributed to dirty water and loss of submerged vegetation, which is a habitat for fish but most importantly a wonderful filtration system to clean water on Lake Okeechobee, which is the liquid heart of the Everglades,” Mr. Iglesias continued.

“Although it is more expensive, we must fund the use of mechanical harvesting and stop the spraying,” he said.

Mr. Iglesias also asked FWC to support efforts to slow the flow of water into the lake, and to clean the water before it goes into Lake Okeechobee.

He also asked that for every dollar spent on spraying, FWC commit to a dollar to replanting the native vegetation.

“The over spraying going on in this state is just ridiculous,” said Mark Roberts. “They were spraying Lake Butler yesterday afternoon,” he said. “The temperature this morning in Lake Butler was 29 degrees.”

“There is basically no submerged vegetation up there in North Florida,” he said. “The St. Johns River is basically devoid of eelgrass.”

Eel grass. Courtesy, IFAS K.A. Langeland.

He said areas with no submerged vegetation are still being sprayed every week.

“Bass are ambush fish. They have to have cover. There is none,” he said.

“I’ve witnessed spray boats spray rocks and bridges, trees in Lake George,” he continued.

“Is it not FWC’s responsibility to oversee the habitat?” he asked.

Mr. Roberts said hydrilla is the best water filter there is. He added that he realizes hydrilla is not native to Florida but added “it has been here longer than any of us.

“When you get a lake that is topped out with hydrilla, the fishing is the greatest.”

“People are hurting,” due to chemical spraying of aquatic plants, said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers of Florida.

“I’ve been here about 20 years and I have watched beautiful lakes turn into mud holes,” he said.

“I wade in it. There’s muck where there used to be grass, all over the state.”

“Aquatic spraying is something we are charged to do,” said Eric Sutton, FWC executive director. He said FWC will work with the anglers and other agencies to come up with a balance.

James Watt, a retired turtle farmer, said he farmed turtles in Port Mayaca for 23 years.

“The main turtles that I farmed were herbivores,” he said, adding that he fed 4 to 16 tons of aquatic plants a week.

Mr. Watt said that due to the spraying, he could not feed the turtles plants harvested from Lake Okeechobee because the plants failed the laboratory tests.

“We would up getting it (aquatic vegetation) from a sugarcane farm in Indiantown. The main thing that we fed was hydrilla and tape grass.

“One of the things that we found while we were harvesting the plants was that there was a lot of life in the plants. You didn’t see that in the plants harvested off Lake Okeechobee after the spraying started in the ’90s.

“At one time, you (FWC) harvested the plants and put them out on the spoil islands. That seemed to work a lot better than the way it is done now.

“It’s a big mystery to a lot of biologists, why the frogs have gone … Whenever these guys are spraying they are wearing industrial gloves and hazmat suits. What do you think happens when frogs are in contact with that stuff?

“One way to eliminate a species is to destroy its habitat and its food supply. Spraying does both,” Mr. Watt continued.

He said he spent a lot of years catching frogs and snakes on Lake Okeechobee and has noted a serious decline in the frog and snake population.

“I am here to speak today about the ongoing abuse of the applicators and that spraying of aquatic vegetation that is being overdone throughout the state of Florida,” said Pastor Scott Wilson. “I am a lifelong Florida fisherman with over 50 years’ experience on the Kissimmee Chain as well as well as running a weekend fish camp since the 1980s.

“I owned and operated a commercial charter boat in Marathon for 24 years.

“Since the turnover and oversight of aquatic weed application to private contractors, I have witnessed the eradication of more square miles of aquatic vegetation that I can begin to describe,” he said.

He said aquatic vegetation on Lake Kissimmee has been decimated.

“In whose scientific mind is it OK to spray nearly 1 million gallons of several proven carcinogens along with 52 poisons, like dioxin, like glyphosate and Endothall, that eventually end up in people’s drinking water?

“These also are proven to contribute to the legacy nutrients that are directly contributing to algal blooms. This also eliminates all of the natural filtration.

“I realize this is just a small part of a very complex perfect storm of pollution sources across the state that ended up with what we had on both coasts this year,” he continued.

“FWC and the IFAS (UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences) maintain that these chemicals are safe for water and wildlife; however, reports from across the state of declining biodiversity, water quality and fisheries certainly point otherwise.”

Pastor Wilson said for the past five months, marine documentarians have shot drone videos of aquatic spraying all over the state.

“The videos clearly show they spray everything green and everything brown and dead. Over the spray on one of my videos goes into nothing but open water,” he said. He asked for a Florida Department of Environmental Protection investigation of the aquatic spraying.

“People are sick of this destruction,” he said.

“Freshwater commercial fishermen — as few of them as there are these years — they have been on me for years about their concern with the spraying,” said Florida Inland Navigation District Commissioner Jerry Sansom. “They see changes.

“One of the most futile discussions I ever had was in the middle 1970s with an Army colonel who tried to explain to me how Agent Orange was safe and didn’t have an impact on the environment or the people,” he continued. “We all now know that is not the case.”

The change.org petition “Stop the State-Sanctioned Poisoning of Our Lakes and Rivers” had 168,660 signatures as of 12:30 p.m. Dec 13.

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