FWC seeks input on lake plan

OKEECHOBEE — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began work on a new management plan for Lake Okeechobee on Feb. 18, with a public meeting at the Okeechobee Civic Center on U.S. 98 to gather stakeholder input.

Ryan Hamm, regional fisheries administrator, said FWC is drafting a management plan for Lake Okeechobee. He said FWC wants to know how can we do a better job of managing Lake Okeechobee to meet stakeholders’ needs.

“We’re all here because we care about Lake Okeechobee and the use of this resource,” he said.

“We are the fish and wildlife agency,” explained Mason Smith, FWC freshwater fisheries biologist. “We not only have to manage the fish and wildlife populations, we also manage the habitat those populations depend on.”

He said that includes habitat conservation and invasive plant control.

“The idea of a management plan is to basically have a guidance for all of these things that we do that is good for the lake ecology and is also supported by the stakeholders,” said Mr. Smith.

He said a stakeholder is anybody who can affect or be affected by FWC’s management of the lake.

The plan will have specific goals, objectives and actions within FWC’s jurisdiction, he continued.

“It’s also important to note that Lake O is really important within the entire South Florida ecosystem,” he said. The role the lake plays on the South Florida ecosystem and projects such as Everglades restoration must also be considered, he added.

Mr. Smith said the two-year process to develop the plan will involve stakeholders throughout the process from start to finish, and will include public meetings, communication by email and stakeholder input workshops.

“We promise to address and balance, where feasible, the needs of all stakeholder groups,” he said, and “to manage fish and wildlife for their long-term well-being and for the benefit of people.”

Dr. Paul Gray of Audubon Florida questioned the wisdom of trying to develop a lake management plan based on public comment.

Science should come first, he said.

Dr. Gray said Audubon’s primary mission is ecosystem conservation.

“First and foremost, we want these plans to be scientifically based,” he said.

“I wonder if you guys could think about writing a technical plan that says, here is the scientific basis for what we are doing, how we are going to honor the most natural system,” he continued. He suggested asking for stakeholders for input after presenting the science.

“You are the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Your primary mission is to protect our resources,” said Dr. Gray. “Taking stakeholder input first is putting the cart before the horse.” He also questioned the wisdom of attempting to write a management plan for the Big O before writing plans for the smaller lakes. He suggested they might fine tune the process while developing plans for smaller bodies of water.

“Lake Okeechobee is the most complicated lake in the whole state,” he said. “What makes wetlands function is hydrology. That is controlled basically by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Dr. Gray said the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which the corps is developing and plans to put in place by the end of 2022, “is going to be the most important determination of what our future ecosystem will look like.”

Dr. Gray said the second factor that affects the lake ecosystem is fire. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem; nature uses fire to clean out the dead brush. Lake Okeechobee has a burn management plan, he explained. However, burning dead brush inside the dike depends on water levels and on permits from the Florida Forest Service, which in turn depend on wind conditions and availability of Forest Service staff. (If firefighters are too busy with wildfires elsewhere they may not have sufficient staff available to oversee a Lake O burn.)

“The third thing that makes these ecosystems function is nutrients,” said Dr. Gray. For example, if the lake level gets too deep, the nutrient-rich water from the middle of the lake gets into the marshes and encourages the growth of cattails, which can crowd out other vegetation.

Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley asked FWC for help in clearing the channels of silt so boaters can get in and out of the lake. “Down at Lakeport, the channel gets silted in from Fisheating Creek all the time,” he said. He said due to the buildup of sand in the channel, when the lake is low they can’t get out into the lake.

The commissioner said he has not found anyone who will accept the responsibility. Each agency refers him to another state agency. “I went to the corps, I went to the South Florida Water Management District and I went to you, and I keep going in circles,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if we have any fish if we can’t get to them,” he said.

Some audience members asked FWC to do less spraying of herbicides and more mechanical harvesting.

Alyssa Jordan, of FWC, said there are limitations of where the harvesters can work and in some cases it is cost-prohibitive.

She said there are mechanical harvesters working the Harney Pond area this week.

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