Florida's never-ending grass saga

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Photos by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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.”