After receiving a call from a concerned citizen about “hundreds” of fish reportedly floating dead on top of the murky Lake Okeechobee water near the Clewiston locks, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) biologists were sent to investigate the sighting.
What biologists found were at least ten dead large mouth bass floating on the water’s surface, according to Ralph LaPrairie, fisheries biologist for FWC.
Species-specific fish kills such as this are not normal, said LaPrairie, adding that it was most likely the result of someone releasing fish back into the lake and not taking “due care” while doing so.
The disparity in the number of fish reported dead during the original sighting to what FWC biologists found hours later could also be the result of alligators, osprey, vultures and other prey carrying off the easy targets.
And while it is nearly impossible to determine exactly who was responsible for the small-scale fish kill, LaPrairie said it was most likely the result of a tournament.
Two days before the reported sighting, Clewiston hosted one of the biggest bass fishing tournaments it will see this year: the Walmart Bass Fishing League Tournament.
The competition, held on March 1 and hosted by Roland and Mary Ann Martin’s Marina, saw 195 boats and 390 anglers participating in the tournament on Lake Okeechobee. Many local anglers fished in the competition, including Clewiston-native Robert Power, who took 16th place in the co-angler division and Belle Glade-native Jared McMillan, who took first place in the competition.
A second, much smaller tournament was also held around the same time the numerous bass were reported dead.
LaPrairie said FWC reached out to the tournament directors to question their release strategies and to make sure they were adhering to the proper release procedures, particular during weigh-in, when fish are put under the most stress.
According to LaPrairie, the tournament directors said they took all necessary precautions while releasing the fish; FWC, however, will be monitoring the tournaments more closely in the future, said LaPrairie.
The same tournament that may have caused the fish kill, also drew in a number of visitors to Clewiston and Hendry County.
Mayor Phillip Roland said these types of large-scale tournaments, and Lake Okeechobee as a whole, are essential for the city of Clewiston.
“People have to understand that that lake is the reason we are what we are in this town. It generates so much money to the TDC [Tourism Development Council], to the town, to gas sales, to motel rooms, to everything,” said Mayor Roland. “It [Lake Okeechobee] is the straw that stirs the drink.”