‘Toxic’ media coverage hurts local businesses

OKEECHOBEE — Local business owners Leif Garrard and Mike Krause are concerned about the way the media, particularly televised media, portrays Lake Okeechobee.

“Our lake is not toxic,” said Leif Garrard, owner of Garrard’s Bait & Tackle. “The only thing toxic is the things the media say about our lake.” Mr. Garrard is concerned because he said Okeechobee is the biggest town around the lake, and we can’t get a congressman or a representative to come here.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Garrard’s Bait & Tackle
Richard Kersey shows off his catch. The fishing is great on Lake Okeechobee.

“We can’t get Stuebe here. We can’t get Brian Mast here. He refuses to come. We can’t get Nikki Fried. We can’t get anyone to come to Okeechobee,” he said. “When they come to look at the lake, they go straight to South Bay,” he said. Okeechobee has invited them numerous times, but no one will come, despite the fact it is the largest town on the lake. “And the lake is beautiful! The fishing is great, but they won’t come see for themselves,” he said.

He is frustrated because he said our water has not been released south for months, yet there is no recognition that there is still a problem with the water south of the lake and on the coast.

“The lake is not the cause of their water problems,” he said, “but the media won’t cover it.”

Garrard’s Bait & Tackle has been in Okeechobee since 1972, and business is way down, he said. The bad publicity is really hurting them. He is getting phone calls from Kentucky, Ohio and other states every day asking if the lake is open again. “Can you breathe the air? We heard all the fish are dead there. We heard there was algae everywhere. That’s all we see on the news,” they tell him. “Can we eat the fish? Do we need gloves? Do we have to wash our boats every time we go out? Do we have to wear a mask?”

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Garrard’s Bait & Tackle
Jamie White had a great day fishing on Lake Okeechobee.

Mr. Garrard said a few years ago there was a meeting and Gov. Rick Scott had it in black and white, a Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and university study on the algae in the lake which said it is non-toxic. It turns toxic 4 miles from the coast, he said. The study said the septic tanks and runoff were the main problems. Gov. Scott went and offered to pay half the cost to put all those counties on sewer, and all the commissioners over there turned him down, he said. They all said they didn’t have the money for the other half.

“Well the news just ignores all that,” he said. “Gov. Scott showed them the proof. It’s already been proven the problem is their runoff and their septic, but it’s easier to blame the lake. The beaches over on the coast have had high bacteria counts because there has been fecal matter in the water all summer, but there is nothing in the news about that. They just keep on about ‘toxic Lake Okeechobee’.”

What they don’t understand, he said, is when the tourists come here to fish, their wives go to the coast to shop. They go out to eat over there, and they go to the movies. If those people stop coming down, it hurts their businesses, too. Tourism is important to a lot more businesses than you would think, he said. Even the hospital called Mr. Garrard to ask how his business was and told him their business was way down.

Mike Krause, who owns Fishing Headquarters, said his business has declined by 29% in the last year, and Mr. Garrard said his figures are similar. What frustrates them the most is the fact that their business is down due to the bad publicity the lake has been getting.

“Dr. Paul Gray, one of the biggest voices for the Audubon Society, made one of the dumbest statements he could have ever made four months ago, and Paul actually didn’t even make the statement, the newspaper made it on his behalf,” said Mr. Krause. He was speaking of the controversial statement Dr. Gray made to a TC Palm reporter who called him to discuss the lake. Dr. Gray later explained he would not eat the fish because he just does not have enough data to make a judgment one way or the other, so he’d rather be cautious.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Garrard’s Bait & Tackle
Hunter Avery shows off the fish he caught in beautiful Lake Okeechobee.

“It’s the constant bashing on the news,” said Mr. Garrard. “TOXIC TOXIC TOXIC!” said both men together. “Day after day, the media tells people the lake is toxic. There was even a television show on the Weather Channel in 2016 called “Toxic Lake Okeechobee.” How do you fight that? They don’t want to hear the facts,” said Mr. Krause, adding that the special-interest Everglades Trust, Everglades Foundation and Bullsugar.org have their own agenda.

The way the media is talking about the lake is killing us more than any lake fluctuating,” said Mr. Garrard. “Our northern friends look up Lake Okeechobee, and all they see is toxic, toxic, toxic. Will they come back? I just don’t know. I hope so.” Mr. Garrard even offers to send pictures to his customers who call from up north. “The lake is beautiful, and the fishing is great,” he says. “Let me send you some pictures.” When the news shows pictures, they show pictures from two years ago, he said. “If you go down there right now, you aren’t going to see any algae.”

“Why won’t any of the politician come here to discuss the lake or even to look at the lake?” they asked. “They go to the coast, but they don’t come here. Our votes do not seem to matter to them,” said Mr. Krause.

Mr. Krause said no one denies Lake Okeechobee has issues. “We are not the cause of the issue, though. We are the ones who are suffering from the rhetoric that goes on over on the coast without factual information.”

Both men are issuing an open invitation to any of our representatives. “Come here. Let us show you. Our lake is not toxic. Let us take you out on the lake for a day of fishing. Give us a chance. Please.”

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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