Media focus on algae is hurting tourism on Lake Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE — Lake Okeechobee is open for business, but negative media reports about algae — often accompanied by 2016 images of the algal bloom on the Treasure Coast — are scaring tourists away this summer.

Local anglers have been boasting about catching big bass all summer, and posting photos on social media to show their catches as well as the actual conditions on Lake Okeechobee.

Photo courtesy Terry Garrels
Lake Okeechobee anglers report the fishing has been great on Lake Okeechobee this summer.

(A gallery of Summer 2018 Lake Okeechobee photos can be found on the Okeechobee News page on Facebook.) Images posted by those who are out on the lake every day show a very different lake than depicted on the nightly news.

At the Okeechobee News, staffers have been fielding calls from all over the country from those alarmed by what they see on the national news. Tourists who have fished Lake Okeechobee in the summer before are reassured to learn it’s little different from other years. There are some sporadic algae blooms, which are common on the massive but shallow eutrophic lake in the hot summer months; and, the fishing has been very good this summer.

There have been no fish kills reported on the lake this summer.

While some cyanobacteria blooms include the species capable of producing toxins, Florida Department of Environmental Protection tests have shown no microcystin toxins or very low levels, below the 10 micrograms per liter considered safe for recreational contact by the World Health Organization.

The Okeechobee Utility Authority, which draws Lake Okeechobee water for the public water system, also monitors for microcystin.

The July 2 NOAA image, used most prominently by coastal and national media, showed dense concentrations of cyanobacteria in 90 percent of the lake. The more recent July 18 NOAA image which showed the cyanobacteria bloom was lessening, with cyanobacteria in about 30 percent of the lake and concentrations lessening, received little coverage.

Contrary to reports that algae “covers the surface” of the lake, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric imagery actually depicted cyanobacteria in the water column. Only a few areas had a visible algal bloom on the surface, and even those surface blooms tended to come and go. Winds might push algae onto the shoreline causing it to stack up in vegetation.

Cyanobacteria (which is not actually algae but is commonly referred to as “blue green algae”) can also rise and fall in the water column.

On both sides of the lake, fishing is best in the early morning hours before the water heats up from the blazing summer sun, according to the professional guides.

Guides on both sides of the lake report cancellations due to the national media coverage of the algae blooms, even though the photos of thick mats of algae shown on television are not from Lake Okeechobee.

The Okeechobee Chamber of Commerce has also been fielding calls about the lake, and reassuring callers that while the lake is experiencing a summer algae bloom — a common occurrence in hot weather — the fishing has been very good this summer, and the area is open for business, according to Chamber executive director Paulette Wise.

Those who call are reassured, she said, especially if they have visited the big lake in the summer before. The bigger concern, she added, is those who see the television coverage and just cancel their plans to fish Lake Okeechobee this summer without further investigation.

“It’s very discouraging,” she said.

On the south end of the lake, Ramon Iglesias at Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, said he believes the mainstream media coverage of the coastal algae blooms and their allegations about Lake Okeechobee are to blame for cancellations. Anglers who have been out on the lake this summer have not seen anything like the images portrayed on television.

“Lake Okeechobee is open for business,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner.

Lake Okeechobee: ‘It looks great’
Maria Milone of Vero Beach made the trip to come fish on Lake Okeechobee on July 13, 2018. Both she and her husband, Ralph Milone, were surprised at how great the lake looked in contrast to the reports they see while living on the Treasure Coast. “We were thinking of going to fish somewhere else based on all the reports we were reading about algae,” said Mrs. Milone. “But we decided to at least check for ourselves first, and I’m glad we did, it looks great. We’ve seen a lot of people out here fishing, and it looks beautiful.”

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