“We recognized an overall disdain for the program,” Matt Phillips admitted, “so we did a pause in operations.”
Phillips is the leader of the Invasive Plant Management Section of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), in charge of controlling aquatic invaders like hydrilla, hyacinth, water lettuce and more. In the eyes of many bass anglers, he’s public enemy No. 1 – commander of the big, bad spray boats.
Now before we go any further, my intention here is not to take sides. Personally, I hate aquatic herbicides, but I recognize the need to use them, especially in Florida. Instead, I’d like to present the facts as told to me by Phillips during a lengthy interview earlier this week.
My interest piqued after learning of the FWC’s spray program pause, followed by the solicitation of new ideas from both the aquatic management industry and the general public as to how better manage the resource.
Yes, you read that correctly. For the first time that I can recall, a fish and wildlife agency is taking suggestions from anyone and everyone as to the best ways to manage weeds in our lakes. But why? And can this possibly work?
For starters, let’s grab a few facts. The aquatic plant control program in Florida is a monster, demanding a $20 million annual budget and covering over 1.25 million surface acres across 465 waterways. The FWC coordinates spray measures – sometimes carried out by a number of agencies – as well as biological and mechanical controls.
In late 2018, the FWC was receiving an unusually high number of complaints about the conditions of several waterbodies, including bass holy lands Okeechobee and Istokpoga, warranting a break in the action to determine what was happening.
Phillips confirmed that plants plays a key role at the FWC: “We are now collecting plant data, right along with fish and wildlife data, and managing accordingly.”
During the pause in operations, the FWC conducted a series of public workshops to learn more. They found that overall, many anglers “did not like the shape the waterbody was in” and “spraying was perceived to be at fault.”
Instead, the FWC argued that much of the changes were the results of weather-related causes like hurricanes, as well as continued nutrient-loading from non-point sources. For example, over 600 tons of phosphorus makes its way into Lake Okeechobee annually as a result, primarily, of over-fertilization of area farmlands, acting as one giant shot of nutrients, blooming algae, darkening waters, and prohibiting growth of other plants.
“Land use is the biggest component,” Phillips confirmed when questioned about water quality.
In any case, the FWC wanted to hear from the public. Perhaps this was due to a continued decline in public perception.
“There is more concern now to be transparent. It's part of good governing,” Phillips confirmed. He also admitted a major correlation between stakeholder complaints and social media.
“No credentials are needed on social media. Everyone is an instant expert.”
Phillips makes a good point. Behind the scenes are government biologists, trained in water-quality issues and plant management, taking a back seat to a bass fisherman with an iPhone. In addition, Phillips pointed out that his agency cannot, and will not, respond to ranting posts and biased claims made on the Internet. But does that lead to a perceived lack of caring?
In addition, it’s important to realize that many of today’s anglers have no comprehension of what could happen if aquatic plants are left unchecked. You see, we’re dealing with an invasive species; think zebra mussel or Asian carp. At one time before current spray practices, the entire St. John’s River would routinely become blocked by water hyacinths, capable of doubling in size every two weeks. Today, routine spot treatments prevent things from getting out of hand.
Regardless of the process and the overwhelming facts, the FWC admits there may be a better way and they want to hear suggestions. The recent Request For Information (RFI) resulted in over two dozen submissions, many by professional plant-control companies with fresh ideas.
Mechanical harvesting of the plant material seems to be generating the most momentum, as more people shy away from chemical use and associated health risks. But harvesting, Phillips cautions, may not be realistic.
Controlling all of the impacted waters by harvesting would require hundreds of millions of dollars and is relatively ineffective in shallow water, according to our expert. Grass carp have been shown to work when stocked correctly. Even the subject of manatees as a control method was mentioned.
As a result of the RFI, the FWC has put aside $1 million to prioritize and research each and every idea that was generated. A new position at the agency was created to begin organizing a management plan for major water bodies throughout the state. And the treatment process itself – and the level that biologists must go through to get approval – has been tightened up.
A spray schedule has been determined and is being posted online for all to see, allowing the public access to what was previously kept hidden. And the FWC is striving to better communicate with the water quality agencies throughout the state, taking more of an ecosystem-based approach.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of the public RFI and whether new measures will be adopted in the near future. As anglers, we should demand more from these groups; heck, we fund them.
We just need to be sure our demands are based on science, not shares.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)