By: Katrina Elsken, Lake Okeechobee News
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...