OKEECHOBEE — As the sun rose over Lake Okeechobee on Friday, a group of fishermen gathered near the Lock 7 boat ramp on the lake’s northern shore to protest the use of chemical herbicides to control aquatic vegetation.
Anglers came from as far away as Miami, Naples and Cape Canaveral with homemade signs proclaiming sentiments such as “You’re killing wildlife,” “Stop spraying poison in our lakes,” and “Help Lake O.” The problems caused by the chemical herbicide use are not limited to the Big O, they explained. The problem is statewide.
Jason Blair, who organized the protest via social media, said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s aquatic spraying program is destroying the state’s states and rivers. He said anglers support a switch to mechanical harvesting to keep navigation channels clear and remove invasive non-native plants.
“What happens to Florida, happens to the world,” said Wanda Klopf of Fort Myers who held a sign reading “They live, we live” on one side and “They die, we die” on the other.
FWC officials say the herbicide spraying is needed to control the spread of non-native invasive plants which block navigation channels and crowd out native plants.
Chemical spraying is cheaper and easier than mechanical harvesting, said Ramon Iglesias of Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina in Clewiston. “You can’t tell me putting any chemical into any body of water is healthy.” He said the fishermen are fighting for money for mechanical harvesting to control aquatic plants.
“We’d have to find the funding for FWC to do mechanical harvesting, which is the right way to do it,” he said.
An angler from Melbourne said FWC’s use of chemical herbicides is killing vegetation in waterways all over the state. “The plants are gone,” he said. “They are decimating the lake, decimating the wildlife and decimating the chain of life.”
Brandon Medlock of Lake Placid said water coming out of Fisheating Creek used to be filtered by 7 miles of grass all the way to Horse Island. The grass that once filtered the water entering the lake is gone, he said.
“We need our lakes to have grass,” he said. “Not just Lake Okeechobee, but everywhere.”
The controversial FWC policy of using chemical herbicides to control invasive aquatic plants has drawn complaints from boaters and fishermen for years. Earlier this year, after more than more than 176,000 people signed the “Stop the State-Sanctioned Poisoning of Our Lakes and Rivers” petition on Change.org, FWC temporarily paused the spray program and conducted public meetings. Thousands of anglers turned out for the meetings, with the vast majority of participants calling for limits on use of chemical herbicides and more use of mechanical harvesting. The fishermen also called for more oversight of the contractors who do the spraying. After the public hearings, the spraying resumed. Since then, some anglers have taken to social media, posting videos of the spray boats and photos of native plants, animals and fish they say were killed or injured by the chemicals.
Anglers have also attended FWC meetings to continue to protest the use of chemical herbicides in Florida’s waters. Some traveled to Gainesville for a meeting, arriving more than an hour before it started but finding no place to sit because the room had been packed with employees of the spraying contractors.
FWC’s website, myfwc.com, includes the spraying plans in their “What’s happening on my lake?” page.
The schedule for Nov. 12-15 called for spraying in the area of the “Monkey Box.” When the spray boats did not show up at Lock 7 by 8 a.m. on Friday, some anglers wondered if the spray schedule had been changed due to their publicity about the protest.