Conservation News

Florida’s never-ending grass saga

Florida conservation officials are taking a more transparent approach to managing aquatic vegetation.

When the wind suddenly picked up on Lake Okeechobee, anglers feared the worst from herbicide spray boats that had arrived earlier. As evidence of what they thought was irresponsible behavior, they took photos.

But bad things didn’t happen, according to Jayson Hooven, conservation director for Florida B.A.S.S. Nation (FBN). Because of new sensors on the equipment, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) confirmed that the contractors acted responsibly and did not spray.

During the FBN State Championship on Lake Seminole, Hooven, who was also recently elected president of Lakeland Bassmasters, told competitors about the agency’s Fleet Tracker pilot program on Okeechobee, where sprayers are both monitored and tracked with GPS.

“With this, we’re getting information in almost real time, and biologists can come right in [to follow up],” explained Matt Phillips, head of FWC’s Invasive Plant Management Section. “Previously, if there was an error, we wouldn’t know it until well after the fact.

“Also, if a boat gets in a buffer [a no-spray zone], we receive email alerts.” One such alert warned that a spray boat was near a potable water intake. But monitoring quickly confirmed it was not spraying.

“The best tournament anglers in Florida seemed very happy to hear that,” Hooven said. “While I am aware there is a lot of work to do, it appears things are definitely getting better and going in the right direction.”

As a member of FWC’s recently created Technical Assistance Group (TAG) for aquatic plant management, Hooven is helping make that happen.

He added that he’s “seen significant improvement just in one year in reducing overspraying, improving accountability of contractors with the Fleet Tracker program and listening to stakeholders,” as FWC continues the herculean task of managing aquatic vegetation in 125 million acres of public waters.

In a semitropical climate conducive to a variety of fast-growing invaders, plant management is a necessity to maintain angling and boating access and prevent invasives such as water hyacinth and hydrilla from destroying diverse native ecosystems.

When allegations of herbicide misuse exploded on social media in 2018, they often were accompanied by videos, some accurately conveying reality and others not so much. In response, FWC temporarily shut down herbicide applications, and during the pause, it listened to concerns and gathered ideas for implementing a comprehensive new strategy for vegetation control.

“Especially with some of those South Florida lakes, we wanted to let people know we heard them,” Phillips said.

TAG and Fleet Tracking are but a fraction of FWC’s new strategy, with emphasis on reducing use of herbicides and improving techniques for mechanical harvesting.

But contrary to what some anglers may wish, stopping all use of herbicides is not on the agenda. In February, video showing contractors spraying birds as well as vegetation surfaced on social media. The narrator urged FWC to stop spraying the vegetation that acts as a natural nutrient filter, suggesting that vegetation could be allowed to grow unchecked with no ill effects.

But that’s not true, countered Phillips.

“There is a tremendous cost to our native habitats if we do not control these highly invasive species. Water hyacinth can double in as little as seven to 10 days and displace native vegetation, including covering up native, submerged vegetation,” he said.

With hyacinths blocking sunlight, the beneficial grasses underneath die. Additionally, mechanical harvesters can’t be used effectively in shallow waters where those grasses are most abundant.

“This loss has been demonstrated on Lake Okeechobee when we did stop all spraying on the lake,” Phillips said. “We have documented the ill effects of water hyacinth and lettuce.

“Currently, there is not an alternative to large-scale invasive plant control using herbicides. But we are constantly looking for new and innovative technologies to help us in this fight.”

Some grasses can double in just seven to 10 days, blocking access to lakes and choking out native habitat.

Other aspects of FWC’s new strategy include:

1. Partnering with the Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District to sponsor a nutrient reduction project on Lake Okeechobee. Harvested floating plants, which absorb nutrients, will be pressed and pumped to hay fields to be used as an additive to improve yield. This will reduce nutrient overload in the lake, which leads to algae blooms.

2. Biologists have investigated accusations that herbicides harm fish and a report from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute will be released shortly.

“They have actually changed some of their protocols and added a fish health screening as part of their annual sampling so we will be able to detect any increase or decrease in fish abnormalities,” Phillips explained.

Lakes where plants are managed with herbicides are yielding some of the largest bass for the state’s TrophyCatch program. “Plant management is not hurting those populations,” he said.

3. Ways to improve mechanical harvesting are being explored. One possibility is the use of GPS.

“Harvesters are good at getting what they can see,” Phillips said. “But maybe we can be more systematic and efficient for submerged plants.”

Because invasive floating plants often are in mixed stands with beneficial vegetation, work is ongoing to modify machines to allow selective harvest on top.

4. Development of habitat management plans for individual lakes has been accelerated, with emphasis on stakeholder input.

Work has been slowed by pandemic restrictions and budget cuts, but virtual meetings have been conducted for the Harris Chain of Lakes, Kissimmee Chain and Lake Okeechobee.

FWC research partners have been collecting data on those lakes as plant management is conducted to “see if we can find any new efficiency in the process and how we might better integrate this work with our other tools,” he added.

5. More detailed information regarding management is being provided to the public, primarily through the FWC website on pages such as Lake Management Plans, Aquatic Plant Management Program Enhancements and What’s Happening on My Lake.

“What’s Happening on My Lake is a great resource and is constantly being updated,” Hooven said.

“With the economic impact of recreational fishing in Florida being at an all-time high of $1.86 billion a year, it’s more important than ever to get [aquatic plant management] right,” he added. “We all want to take care of our fisheries for future generations, and it takes teamwork among stakeholders and agencies to accomplish this goal.”