Mechanical harvesters are large machines which both cut and collect aquatic plants. Cut plants are removed from the water by a conveyor belt system and stored on the harvester until disposal. A barge may be stationed near the harvesting site for temporary plant storage or the harvester carries the cut weeds to shore. The shore station equipment is usually a shore conveyor that mates to the harvester and lifts the cut plants into a dump truck. Harvested weeds are disposed of in landfills, used as compost, or in reclaiming spent gravel pits or similar sites.
Harvesting is usually performed in late spring, summer, and early fall when aquatic plants have reached or are close to the water's surface. Harvesters can cut and collect several acres per day depending on weed type, plant density, and storage capacity of the equipment. Harvesting speeds for typical machines range from 0.5 to 1.5 acres per hour. Depending on the equipment used, the plants are cut from five to ten feet below the water's surface in a swath 6 to 20 feet wide. Some modern harvesters can cut plants in a range of water depths. Because of machine size and high costs, harvesting is most efficient in lakes larger than a few acres. Harvesting can be an excellent way to create open areas of water for recreation and fishing access.
Along with plants, harvesters also collect a large number of small fish and invertebrates. Amphibians and turtles have been known to be collected as well. In the harvesting machine shown above which was harvesting Eurasian watermilfoil from Long Lake, Thurston County, the operator is watchful for fish as the cut plants move up the conveyer belt. She uses a pole to flick fish from the belt into the lake before they reach the storage area.
If you hire harvesting services make sure that the harvester has been thoroughly cleaned and inspected before allowing it to be launched into the waterbody. This is extremely important if the harvester has been working in waterbodies known to be infested with noxious species such as Eurasian watermilfoil, hydrilla, Brazilian elodea, or with exotic animals such as the zebra mussel or spiny water flea.
Harvesting in Washington requires hydraulic approval from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Some Shoreline Master Programs may also require permits for harvesting. Check with your city or county before proceeding with a harvesting project. Because harvesting collects fish along with aquatic plants, some additional monitoring may be required when harvesting in salmon bearing waters, or a permit may be denied.
Costs per acre vary with numbers of acres harvested, accessibility of disposal sites to the harvested areas, density and species of the harvested plants, and whether a private contractor or public entity does the work. Costs as low as $250 per acre have been reported. Private contractors generally charge $500 to $800 per acre. The purchase price of harvesters ranges from $35,000 to $110,000. There are several harvester manufacturers in the United States and some lake groups may choose to operate and purchase their own machinery rather than contracting for these services.
Interested in learning more about harvesting? Check with your local library to see if you can borrow a copy of the Volume 18, Number 1, March 1993 Lakeline publication from the North American Lake Management Society (NALMS).
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