FWC listens to stakeholders regarding Lake Okeechobee aquatic plant program

OKEECHOBEE — Hundreds of anglers filled the Okeechobee Civic Center on Feb. 7 to ask for changes in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) aquatic plant management program.

Concerns included allegations of over spraying of chemical herbicides, which kill native plants along with the invasives; lack of oversight of those spraying; build up of muck in the lake as the dead invasive plants fall to the bottom of the lake and decay; and health hazards posed to humans exposed to the chemicals.

Anglers voiced frustration with the lack of submerged aquatic vegetation which provides spawning area for fish and habitat for young fish.

“There’s nothing left to spray!” anglers shouted from the audience.

“Nobody would disagree with folks who say Lake Okeechobee is in trouble,” said Kipp Frolich, director of the FWC Habitat and Species Conservation division. “Lake Okeechobee has many problems with ecological health and water quality. It’s not what it should be.

“The people that work for FWC – many of whom recreate on this lake too – we’re worried as well,” Mr. Frolich said.

He said FWC focuses on managing fish and wildlife, and is responsible for management of aquatic vegetation and controlling invasive aquatics.

The Department of Environmental Protection is in charge of water quality, he said.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which works with FWC regulates and certifies herbicides used in the state of Florida, he said. The herbicides are approved federally by EPA and in the state by IFAS.

“We’ve all seen a lot of changes to our state,” Mr. Frolich said. “From an environmental standpoint a lot of them are disappointing. We share the concern and the problem.

“We need stakeholders to be involved in the solutions to make Lake Okeechobee and our statewide waters better,” he said.

On Jan. 28, FWC began a temporary pause in chemical herbicide treatments for a few weeks for a listening tour. “We are aware of increasing concerns about herbicides,” said Mr. Frolich.

He said although FWC has paused their spraying program, other state agencies may still be spraying.

“We did not take a pause on mechanical harvesting,” he added, just a “temporary pause on Oherbicide treatments while we learn more about that.”

Jon Fury, director of the FWC Freshwater Fisheries Management Division, said while FWC’s mission is to manage fish and wildlife, the agency also has statutory responsibilities for invasive plant management on public waters.

“Most of our lakes are shallow basin lakes,” he said. “They are often nutrient rich and they have a lot of aquatic vegetation.”

Florida also has a subtropical climate and long growing seasons, which is conducive to growth of some of the nonnative harmful invasive plants.

“In the past 100 years we have lost about 60 percent of the wetlands in Florida, often due to man made structures,” he said. “All of our major lakes have water control structures. That changes how a natural lake operates in the system.

“We don’t get the high highs and low lows we used to get. That causes changes.

“We have a lot of urbanization and population growth. When people move to Florida, where do they like to go? We are drawn to water.”

He said urbanization means more pavement and buildings that change the flow of water.

Instead of coming down onto soil and permeating into the aquifer, rainfall runs off into lakes and rivers.

“With people come nutrients,” he said. “People bring nutrients and nutrients bring changes.”

People sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally bring nonnative invasive plants such as hydrilla.

“These invasive plants are not native to Florida. They have extremely fast growth rates. Because of their fast growth rates they have a competitive advantage over native plants,” he explained.

He said FWC uses chemical (such as herbicides), mechanical (such as aquatic harvesters), biological (such as grass carp and the hydrilla weevils) and physical controls (such as fire and draw downs) to control invasive plants.

“When we see these subcontractors out there doing the spraying, we don’t see good control of what they are doing,” said Bill Locker, a Buckhead Ridge resident. “They run through duck decoys, run over fishermen. They are spraying rocks.” He said anglers have started videoing the aquatic spraying crews to document the problems.

“Put lake’s best interest first, not the chemical companies, not the applicators,” he urged the FWC officials.

Mike Hulan of Texas Aquatic Harvesting said both harvesters and herbicides should be used to control harmful invasive vegetation. He said his company does not use chemical spraying, but he understands the job cannot be done by mechanical harvesting alone. Mr. Hulan said they would like the chance to try mechanical harvesting on the Big O. He said there are ways to make aquatic harvesting more cost effective. “We will do our best to bring the cost down per acre,” he said.

Graham Cox, who lives in Sebastian, encouraged everyone to read the book “Whitewash” by Carey Gillam, to learn more about the chemicals used to kill aquatic plants.

“You’re going to be up against the big chemical companies that claims these things are safe,” he said. “Monsanto will pressure you.”

William Ballard, who lives on the Kissimmee River, said chemical spraying has hurt the fisheries.

He said they even sprayed “everything green up and down the river,” even killing trees.

“That tells me there was not enough supervision or management with the spraying,” he continued. “We need to think about how many native plants they killing with this spraying.”

“In one area they just came back and spraying everything, killing the small trees around the bank. It looked like a dead zone. It is a dead zone.”

Philip Roland of Clewiston said there are 20 or 30 boats spraying on Lake Okeechobee.

“It makes no sense,” he said.

“I’ve been to these meetings for 30 years,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything change except get worse.”

“In order to get clean water, we need plants,” said Bob Gallik.

“I don’t see any eel grass in the lake. I don’t see any hydrilla. It seems there are more and more spray boats out there all the time. It seems that all the airboats are doing is trying to kill anything that is alive.”

“They should quit spraying,” said David Walker, who said he was a tropical fish farmer in Tampa for 40 years.

“Fish have to have habitat to spawn in,” he said. “They have to have habitat for the babies to hide.”

“Mechanical harvesting has to be part of the solution,” said Ramon Iglesias. “I don’t mean a cookie cutter that is going to shred it. We have to harvest it and get it out of the lake.”

“I live on a big body of water that is sprayed every four weeks with an ‘Agent Orange’ type cocktail,” said Bob Stephen of Sebastian. He said when he first moved in, he enjoyed watching all of the birds that would visit the area.

“The birds have disappeared. Now the trees are dead. They spray the trees. Whether they need to or not, they spray, spray, spray with a firehouse type apparatus, going up and down these canals. The birds are gone, the fish are gone.

“Two years ago, I was on the roof cleaning the gutters,” he said. Two airboats came by, spraying chemical herbicide. It was a windy day.

“I got caught in the drift,” he recalled. “The next morning, I was in the hospital. I fought for a year to breathe.

“You’ve got to stop spraying this stuff.”

Carroll Head said he has fished Lake Okeechobee for 40 years.

“I remember when the spraying started,” he said. “I remember why it started. We had hyacinths blocking the boat ramps. We had hyacinths blocking the channels.

“They are overdoing it,” said Mr. Head. “They are sacrificing good plants for just a little bit of water lettuce or hyacinth.

“Mechanical control is the way to go.”

Mark Miller said the illnesses blamed on the toxins from the cyanobacteria could be caused by exposure to the chemical herbicides.

“Please do what is right,” said Phil Baughman. “You’ve got to stop the spraying. It is killing the lake.”

“Just say no to Monsanto,” said Val Simon.

Commercial fisherman Tom Ayers said he has seen the contractors with the nozzle in the water, not spraying anything, just pouring the chemicals into the water.

Travis Thompson said water quality should be measured after the spraying.

“Nutrient loads are destroying Florida’s waters,” said Mark Yamo.

“Dead vegetation stays in the water and rots. Herbicide use is significantly contributing to our nutrient problem. Please go back to mechanical harvesting.”

“Who is training these people that are out here with the nozzles? Who is responsible for what they are doing or what they are not doing?” asked Bob Collins.

“I had my grandson in the boat out on the lake. There was a nice breeze. Here comes a fellow spraying. There’s all this spray in the breeze. I am not sure how my 10-year-old grandson will fare from that 20 years from now,” he said.

“You took the prettiest lake in the United States and made it a mud hole,” said Dick Myers.

“You are going to say it was due to high water levels. You are going to say hurricanes. But you finished it off.

“After the hurricane, your guys sprayed the three best spawning areas in the whole lake.”

“Nobody’s watching the sprayers,” he said. “Nobody’s controlling what they do. There should be a controlled spray. Florida Wildlife Commission is supposed to be protecting the fish. It ain’t happening man.”

“It needs to be based on reasonableness and science and not hyperbole,” said Carlton Layne. “It’s important that you consider to use your good science.”

“Spraying is not all that is wrong with our lake,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation.

“I do think it’s a big part of it.

“We have a nutrient pollution issue in this state. That is what is feeding this nonnative vegetation. How do we take care of it without adding even more nutrient pollution? It’s like 1,000 cuts to our liquid heart of Florida.

“I think we have been guilty of going with the fastest, cheapest route in Florida for far too long,” she said. “Our water quality is getting worse with every condominium that we build.

“Mechanical harvesting is probably not feasible for tussocks in the middle of the lake,” she said. “Mechanical harvesting could be utilized much more in the canals and shoreline areas.”

Jim Watt, a retired turtle farmer, said one of the objections to mechanical harvesting has been claims the harvesters kill fish and other marine life.

From the 1970s to 2010, he caught and raised reptiles, he explained. He said he fed them 4 to 6 tons of aquatic plants a week, and for the last 8 years that he was in business, he used aquatic plants gathered by mechanical harvesting. While there were some small fish in the mechanically-harvested plant material, he found the allegations that it contains a lot of marine life are unfounded.

“Eight years of pitchforking it out, I didn’t find that to be true,” he said. “Another argument is they have to haul the plants off site. There is zero reason to haul it. In the old days, y’all dumped it on spoil islands. You called it habitat restoration.

He said they could do this again, and after the plants decay for 8 months, the new spoil islands can be planted with willows. Spoil islands crate habitat for birds and alligators, he noted. He said for years he had a permit to collect alligator eggs and he knows gators would use that habitat.

“I’m just a fisherman,” said Dennis Fish. “The only reason I moved here was I liked fishing.

“Why does everything have to be so sterile?” he asked. “You spray from bank to bank in the river. If you go to fish and you are trying to find a piece of cover in the river, it’s virtually impossible.”

He said he only knows of one place in the lake where fish have cover “and I’m not going to tell you where it is because you’d spray that.

“I don’t know what you are spraying,” he said. “There is nothing left to spray.”

Additional meetings about aquatic spraying are planned for:
• Feb. 13 — Sebring: Bert J. Harris Jr. Agri-Civic Center, 4509 George Blvd., 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
• Feb. 19 – Gainesville, Alachua County Library Headquarters, 401 East University Ave., Eustis, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
• Feb. 26 – Eustis Community Center 601 Northshore Dr., Eustis, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Comments may also be sent to Invasiveplants@MyFWC.com.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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