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pouring water to test for quality

Father’s Day feature: a family’s love for the water becomes an act of service

To the Wetzel family, a perfect day is one spent on the water fishing and enjoying each other’s company. For the past 10 years, they have added a volunteer component to their outdoors time by collecting samples for Florida LAKEWATCH.

The Wetzel family Courtesy: Matt Wetzel

The family consists of Matt and children Kylie, 23; Owen, 21; Andrew, 18; and Matt’s girlfriend Evan and her children Robbie, Lexie, 18; and Luke, 11. Every member of the family has participated in sampling. That includes Otter, the family’s German shorthaired pointer who is the official co-captain.

“When the kids were small, I started taking them kayaking, camping, and fishing all over the state,” said Matt Wetzel. “We have kayaked many places from the Keys to the Suwanee River. The kids were in every nearby saltwater fishing tournament we could afford to be in and fished out of their kayaks.”

Florida LAKEWATCH is a citizen science program that engages people in the health of Florida lakes, springs, rivers and estuaries. Volunteers collect samples from a designated location each month, record data about the location and characteristics of the collection site and deliver samples to their nearest collection center where further evaluation takes place.

“We now have a large family and are very active with anything to do with water,” he said. “We fresh- and saltwater fish constantly, with the Kissimmee chain of lakes being our freshwater home, and the Indian River being our saltwater home.”

The family at times has covered the sampling for as many as four lakes in Osceola County and their involvement in their local waterways expands beyond LAKEWATCH.

Two of the boys participated in the Osceola Anglers High School Fishing Club, the largest high school bass fishing club in the state governed by students. Andrew went to the national championship and will attend the world championships next month in South Carolina.
The family also plays an active role in invasive species management and attends local meetings for the lakes in their area.

“We have always been interested in our waterways and how they are managed,” he said. “We started volunteering for LAKEWATCH because it sounded like something we would enjoy doing and would give us access to some interesting lakes that we could kayak. I inquired if the time spent could count towards the high school volunteer credits needed to attend college. It did, so my daughter Kylie started immediately.”

Now, the entire family has been involved and collecting samples is part of their regular outings.

“We have met so many great people in the program,” he said. “From UF/IFAS Extension faculty who originally trained us, to LAKEWATCH Regional Coordinator Dan Willis who has been supportive of anything we need and original volunteer Bill Gest who motivated us. He was the Alligator Lake sampler for something like 25 to 30 years.”

Florida LAKEWATCH is one of the largest monitoring programs in the U.S. with thousands of trained volunteers monitoring more than 800 bodies of water across 57 counties.

woman reaches into water from a boat to collect a water sample

The Wetzels have trained other families on the in’s and out’s of volunteering with LAKEWATCH, including sample collection.
Courtesy: Matt Wetzel

“The importance of volunteers like Matt and his family is that they join a larger LAKEWATCH family, collectively providing statewide quality data that are used for research by UF/IFAS staff and graduate students, as well as management by local, county, state and federal organizations,” said LAKEWATCH director, Mark Hoyer. “The research also leads to outreach information which educates Florida citizens on how to be the best stewards of our valuable water resources. These efforts successfully close the circle on UF’s land grant mission of research, teaching and Extension.”

The Wetzel family has referred families to LAKEWATCH and recommends the program for anyone interested in their local waterways, especially those with students who need volunteer hours.

“I think that the only thing keeping the program from being more popular and used for educational purposes is that the younger crowds just don’t know about it yet,” Matt said. “We share the program with everyone in our club and many show an interest. Of course, they also like the idea of getting their volunteer hours while out on the water.”

“For our family, time on the water allows us to bond more with nature and with each other,” he said. “Some of our best memories have been shared on the boat, including while volunteering for LAKEWATCH. Since the water plays such a valuable role in our lives and wellbeing, we look forward to helping sustain our waters for future generations.”