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Following its Thursday meeting on aquatic plant spraying management, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) provided a series of questions and answers to explain the background of its program and what’s next for it.

Here's what the agency released:

Question: What has the FWC learned from the public meetings?

Answer: A variety of stakeholders attended the four FWC public meetings held so far and we have received more than 500 email comments regarding the FWC’s Invasive Plant Management Program. The feedback we have received reflects a significant amount of diversity in stakeholder opinions. Staff will use this information to explore opportunities to improve the existing program. The “listening tour” will continue through the end of the month. For details on the two remaining meetings, visit MyFWC.com/AquaticPlants and click on “Learn More.” You can also provide comments by emailing Invasiveplants@myfwc.com.

Q: What’s happening on my lake?

A: The FWC strives to provide the public with all available treatment data. There is detailed information about lake management, fisheries data, lake condition, boat ramps and weekly plant control operations available on our website at MyFWC.com/Lake.  

The FWC also provides detailed annual information about the types and amounts of herbicides being applied in Florida lakes by the FWC and its contractors. To see this information, visit MyFWC.com/AquaticPlants. On this page, see the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Reports which list herbicide active ingredients and the amounts used. The FWC’s Annual Report of Aquatic Plant Control provides information for each waterbody on how many acres are treated and what plants are being treated. Please note that the information in this report is only for the FWC and does not include information for other entities.

Q: How do herbicides affect native plants?

A: Native plants are not targeted for control unless they have become problematic by interfering with navigation, flood control or for a specific habitat restoration project. When treating invasive exotic species, which are sometimes mixed in with native plants, it is difficult not to have some damage to native species. But this damage is localized and temporary, as most native plants recover after treatments. Herbicide formulations, timing and vegetation types are all considered to minimize impacts on native species. Suppressing the excessive growth of invasive exotic plants benefits native species.

Q: What are invasive plants and why does the FWC manage them?

A: Invasive plants are defined as those not native to Florida that are known to cause environmental and economic harm. Because they grow much faster than Florida’s native plants they require some type of management action to prevent these negative impacts. The legislature recognized the issues with invasive plants and passed Florida Statute 369.20 which directs the FWC to manage invasive plants. If invasive plants are not managed, they can outcompete native plants and can create threats to human health safety by blocking navigation and providing habitat for disease-carrying mosquito species.

Q: Besides herbicides, what other options are there? 

A: The FWC uses a variety of management techniques in addition to herbicide treatments, including biological controls and mechanical removal. We are exploring opportunities to increase our use of mechanical harvesting in areas where it can be effective. We continue to fund research to find effective biological controls. Ultimately, an integrative pest management approach using a combination of techniques to manage invasive plants will yield the greatest results.

Q: Why can’t the FWC just use mechanical control and eliminate the use of herbicides?

A: Research and tests conducted on Lake Okeechobee and other waterways throughout the state have consistently shown that mechanical harvesters alone are ineffective for large-scale control of these fast-growing exotics. In past tests, when harvesters replaced chemicals on Lake Okeechobee, the plants multiplied faster than they could be harvested, lake conditions became unsuitable for navigation and recreation, and there was a significant loss of native habitat. One crew applying herbicide can cover approximately 10 acres a day, whereas a crew operating a harvester can typically clear only .5 acre a day. Some biological controls can have moderate success on some types of plants but, despite many research efforts, we have not found a biological control agent that provides good results on floating plants such as water hyacinths.

Q: Do you consider the chemicals used to manage invasive plants safe for people and wildlife?

A: Herbicides registered for use in aquatic environments undergo years of rigorous evaluation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 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 target vegetation while conserving or enhancing non-target plants and animals.

Q: Are FWC’S aquatic habitat treatments contributing to red tide and/or blue-green algae?

A: There is no evidence to indicate that Florida’s invasive plant management program has contributed to blue-green algae or red tide. Actively-growing invasive plants like water hyacinth and water lettuce continually shed old and damaged leaves. Research has shown that keeping populations of these plants at low levels reduces the buildup of decaying plant material and therefore less nutrients are released into the system. This is one reason why the FWC works to control invasive aquatic and upland plants on public conservation lands and waterways throughout the state.

Q: Why did the FWC decide to take a pause from aquatic herbicide treatments and hold public meetings?

A: The FWC has been receiving feedback both in favor and not in favor of aquatic herbicide treatment and we think now is a good time to take a temporary pause and collect public comment. These meetings build on the FWC’s long history of engaging the public to provide feedback on this process.

Q: What is the role of the FWC in managing Florida’s freshwater systems and what is the role of other agencies?

A: The FWC is responsible for managing Florida’s fish and wildlife, native habitat and the control of invasive plants. The Department of Environmental Protection is lead on water quality. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for some aquatic plant control as well as for water levels on many systems throughout the state. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is responsible for registration of herbicides and licensing of applicators. The water management districts are responsible for water quantity and allocation of water resources.

Q: Does plant management negatively impact fish populations?

A: Successful plant management benefits fish populations by maintaining diverse plant communities that provide essential habitat for both adult and juvenile fish.

Q: What are the next steps?

A: Once the listening tour is completed, staff in consultation with Director Sutton, will begin implementing ideas for improvements provided by stakeholders at these meetings.

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

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