Florida’s growing immigration question

Florida is a diverse land, full of people from nations across the Earth. But my home state is grappling currently with what some are calling an illegal immigration problem, while others say those people are sorely misguided.

Yes, a war is being waged over the contentious issue of water lettuce.

I never thought I’d have to say that again.

Water lettuce is officially declared a destructive exotic plant, an unwelcome import that strangles waterways.

Seen here wrapping its icy cold hands of death around a river.

Seen here wrapping its icy cold hands of death around a river.

However, it’s also an abundant food supply for Florida’s gentle aquatic giants, the manatee.

So majestic.

So majestic.

But there is far more at stake here than just the what the plant does, for good or for ill.

No one argues that water lettuce thrives in Florida waters. It grows quickly, as many weeds do, and quickly overwhelms waters that are polluted by sewage and fertilizers.

Such waters can be most frequently in the circled area in the map above.

Such polluted waters can be found most frequently in the circled area of the map.

There are disagreements about its benefits and drawbacks. Some say the plant does a great job of reducing the pollutants by using them as a nutrient source while opponents say that effect is overstated.

There are also questions about how much of a benefit it is to manatees. They clearly snack on it constantly, but opponents say that’s because it eliminates other potential food sources, so the manatees would be just fine without it.

This is an animal that clearly knows how to take care of itself.

This is an animal that clearly knows how to take care of itself.

But how good or bad the plant actually is makes little difference to a much more pressing question when it comes to deciding whether or not to continue spending millions of dollars trying to kill it.

Is it a native?

As I mentioned earlier, the plant is officially considered an exotic and invasive species. It’s native to South America and is believe to have hitched a ride through trade centuries ago.

But those beliefs are being challenged. Jason Evans, a native Floridian now turned to the dark side and working at the University of Georgia, has wasted spent years of his life collecting data that he says shows the plant was growing in Florida thousands of years ago, well before the official story has Spanish adventurers bringing it over.

Now the Museum of Natural History is teaming with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the plant’s origin, using the fossil, seed, and pollen data Evans has cited, because they literally have nothing else to spend money on.

There's just no future in studying giant food to feed the world's poor.

There’s just no future in studying giant food to feed the world’s poor.

It’s simple: if the plant is from Florida originally, it gets to stay because it’s native. If it’s not, then it’s an illegal immigrant, and no expense is too great to get rid of it. It doesn’t matter how much it helps or hurts, compared to that simple question. After all, that’s how we treat people.

If it’s native, then it’s a thriving hard worker that toils to rid the state’s waters of pollution and feeds the manatees. If it’s an immigrant, then it’s taking away opportunities from native plants and poses a threat to anyone on the water.

The only other question that matters is why aren’t we putting ranch dressing on it and serving it to sorority girls? It seems such an obvious solution.

We obviously can't rely on the manatees. (There are just so many of these.)

We obviously can’t rely on the manatees. (There are just so many of these.)

3 thoughts on “Florida’s growing immigration question

  1. My wife and H.T. Odum (the UF ecologist who originally tipped me off that water lettuce was native to Florida) would probably agree that the time I’ve spent researching this topic border on “wasted.” In the case of my wife, so many chores that weren’t done and conversations I’ve not followed as well as I should have, etc., as I pondered the eons of water lettuce evolution and dispersal.

    H.T. Odum, however, much more closely followed your point: why does it really matter all that much if it’s native anyway? And it’s true that water lettuce is providing functions such as nutrient removal that are independent of it being native or exotic. In fact, colleagues and I also advocate for use of water hyacinth – definitely an exotic – in some circumstances for cleaning up water bodies. We have an experiment going on right now in Crystal River, FL where hyacinths are being used (look up Kings Bay Adaptive Management, or KBAM) is contained areas.

    For this water lettuce stuff, however, it’s really a matter of wanting to advance science and challenge information that has been put to the public with very poor evidence to back it up. Many people have had their concerns about water lettuce management be dismissed simply because state agencies have claimed “it’s exotic.” While that simple reasoning is of course wrong-headed, it’s even more galling when the underlying premise itself is, at best, more complicated (e.g., “exotic” strains of water lettuce may have been introduced into Florida at some point) or, at worst, completely false (the fossil and historical record for water lettuce show a long-term presence absolutely consistent with what we would normally call a native species).


    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply! And yes, I completely understand the rhetorical use of proving that water lettuce is native, because so many people will unthinkingly fall back on the native/exotic classification and go no further than that. Meanwhile, I’m guessing no one is calling for the eradication of oranges in Florida, even though they were introduced by the Spanish also, and are thus an exotic.

      If you really want to sway people, it looks like you have to find a way to turn water lettuce into a money-making crop. Maybe consider my “smother it in ranch dressing and sell it as salad” idea?


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