CLEWISTON — Anglers, environmentalists and other concerned citizens gathered at the Herbert Hoover Dike in Clewiston Saturday morning to protest the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s use of chemical herbicides to kill non-native plants in lakes and waterways.
Saturday morning’s chilly temperatures and high winds might have kept some at home, but about 100 protesters turned out carrying homemade signs with messages such as: “FWC is killing our lakes,” “Stop killing the filters,” and “They die, we die.”
“I remember as a kid going out on this lake and the submerged vegetation would go out a mile on this lake,” said professional angler Scott Martin. “They had white buoys out there, mile markers. We had 100,000 acres of submerged vegetation on this lake.
“Last year we had 5,000 acres,” he continued.
“Our biggest problem right now on this lake and a lot of our lakes in Florida is the lack of submerged vegetation. That is our filter.”
Mr. Martin said Lake Okeechobee is the largest lake in Florida and the health of the Big O is critical to the health of the Everglades and South Florida.
“We can’t lose this lake. We need submerged vegetation in this lake. We need to stop the spraying. We cannot continue to dump millions of gallons of chemicals in our waterways in the State of Florida and expect things to work out,” he said.
“We have to invest in mechanical harvesting. Yes, it is going to cost more, but at the end of the day, its going to put more money in the state of Florida, it’s going to put more money in tourism; it’s going to put more money in our communities around this lake and up the Kissimmee River and the east coast and the west coast. That’s money paid back.
“There are some companies out there making bigger mechanical harvesters, and the state needs to start funding those companies better and start promoting them,” he said.
“They spend millions of dollars budgeting for spraying, but how much are they budgeting for reclamation on the grasses that are getting killed by the over spraying? Is there a dollar spent to reclaim peppergrass and reeds on this lake? No, there isn’t. We spend all of this money killing it and don’t spend any money putting it back.”
Mr. Martin said it will take people all over the state working together to bring about the change needed.
“We need everyone holding hands to fix this problem,” he said. “We have to stop the spraying. We need to fund mechanical harvesting.
“We have to pay attention to the acreage of vegetation in all of our lakes. That’s the only way to filter the water. That’s the only way to allow the fish to spawn, the birds to fly and tourism dollars to keep pouring into our communities.
“Lake Okeechobee is round. When the wind blows, it pushes billions of gallons of water into the marsh, which filters it,” Mr. Martin continued. When the wind recedes, the water flows back out into the lake.
“We don’t have to build pumps,” he said. The wind action will pump the water into the marshes where the plants will naturally clean the water, he explained. If the lake vegetation was restored with marshes and submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) all around the edges of the lake, no matter which way the wind blew, it would be pumping water into that natural filter system.
He said scientists should figure out the equation to determine how many gallons of lake water are filtered by one acre of SAV per day. They could then do the math to determine how many acres of SAV are needed on Lake Okeechobee to get to the desired parts per billion levels of phosphorus.
A representative from the Sierra Club called for more use of mechanical harvesting, including humans using hand tools, to control non-native vegetation. She said mechanical harvesting is more expensive, but it can create jobs which will put that government funding back into the communities. Harvesting aquatic plants will remove nutrient load from the waterways, she said.
“We stand with you to stop the spraying, the senseless destruction of our waterways,” said Liz Capozzi of the Everglades Trust.
“You guys give me hope,” said environmental activist Vik Chhabra. “We need people in Florida to really care.” He said humans are destroying God’s works.
Mike Lendl, of Pembroke Pines, said he has watched FWC’s use of chemical herbicides totally destroy Lake Istokpoga. “I would rather see Lake Istokpoga choked with hydrilla where you can’t get a boat in than the mud hole it is now.”
Mr. Lendl said when environmentalists were at odds with the sugar farmers south of the lake over the nutrient load going into the Everglades, the sugar farmers compromised, gave up land and helped fund stormwater treatment areas to clean the water. Environmentalists and anglers from all over the state have complained about FWC’s use of chemical herbicides in Florida’s waterways, he continued. “But FWC has compromised nothing. They aren’t willing to compromise,” he added.
Mr. Lendl said baby bass and baby crappie need vegetation as cover. When FWC kills the non-native aquatic vegetation, the young fish have nowhere to hide from predators. “We’ve got the stop the madness,” he said. “We’re poisoning our waters.” He said FWC’s legal mandate is to keep the boat lanes clear, not to spray the entire lake.
Instead of just killing the unwanted non-native plants, FWC should be increasing the native vegetation on the lakes, he continued.
In response to the protests, FWC released this official statement: “Herbicides registered for use in aquatic environments undergo years of rigorous evaluation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, before an herbicide may be used in Florida waters, it must be registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. During this process, state health and environmental agencies comment on new herbicides. Once registered for use in Florida waters, the FWC contracts with universities and other research institutions to find the most environmentally compatible and cost-effective strategies to apply herbicides to control invasive plants while conserving or enhancing native plants and animal communities.”