WEST PALM BEACH — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) is developing a fish and wildlife habitat management plan for Lake Okeechobee.
At the Oct. 30 meeting of the County Coalition for Responsible Management of Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee Estuaries, and the Lake Worth Lagoon, Mason Smith of the FWC Division of Marine Fisheries Management said the FWC is the state’s lead agency for fish and wildlife. He said the plan for Lake Okeechobee must consider not only the big lake’s own complicated ecosystem but also the other systems connected to and influenced by the lake.
He said the lake is a world-renowned fishing destination, and protection of the fish habitat is important to maintaining the fisheries. FWC does a lot of invasive plant management and habitat restoration and prescribed burning, he said. FWC is also involved in muck removal when lake levels allow such projects.
Work on the lake management plan started in February with kickoff meetings in Okeechobee, West Palm Beach and Clewiston, to involve stakeholders. The process moved online in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our main goal was to cast a wide net and capture all of the concerns, potential solutions and topics we wanted to cover in this plan,” said Smith. “We are starting big and narrowing down our focus.”
He said they held eight workshops with stakeholder groups of fishing, hunting, conservation and recreation interests as well as 29 interviews with local businesses, federal state and local governments, including Okeechobee, Glades, Hendry, Palm Beach and Martin counties.
“There are few things that seem to stick out very clearly,” he said. Stakeholders are concerned about water quality, water clarity, vegetation loss, muck accumulations and fishing and hunting success.
“There were a lot of concerns on our techniques for things like plant management,” he continued.
FWC deals not only with invasive plants on the lake, but also with invasive species of fish such as yilapia and armored catfish, he explained.
He said one thing all of the stakeholders agreed on was the desire to see more submerged aquatic vegetation in Lake Okeechobee. Opinions on other types of habitat vary.
“In terms of management techniques,we’d like to really look into the different techniques we use for invasive plant control, such as prescribed fire and mechanical harvesting and muck removal,” he said.
Smith said the lake management plan may be different for different parts of the lake.
“We may look at the lake differently with geography and timing,” he said. “It’s a very large lake.”
The next stage in the process will be a stakeholder survey which will be released this fall.
“It will be a largely online survey to really dig into those priorities,” Smith said.
After the survey is complete, they will start on the draft phase, using focus groups who will look at the draft and “see if we are on the right track.
“We’re still early on. We’re still developing the plan,” he said.
Those interested in learning more about the plan can sign up for the email distribution list at myfwc.com/conservation/managementplants/lake/okeechobee.
Comment on the lake plan may also be emailed to LakeOkeechobee@myfwc.com.
“How fluid is this plan going to be?” asked Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner, who chairs the coalition.
Turner said he has been in many meetings where “fishermen are wanting to tar and feather you all because you allow certain people to come in and spray.”
Smith said FWC will continue their current lake management while developing the new plan.
“We’re not stopping the work that we are doing now and picking up two years from now,” he said.
“We have a team of invasive plant biologists and navigation is one of their focuses,” he said.
“If you were to completely do away with spraying, it (invasive aquatic plant growth) would overrun us quickly,” agreed Turner. “I think we need to have a more inclusive conversation and bring more stakeholders to the table.”
Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, said SFWMD also deals with controlling exotic plants. He said their plan reduces the use of chemical herbicides by 20 percent in a five-year period.