Wes Smith – Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer

A major storm early this week churned up shallow water at the south end of Lake Apopka, killing several thousand fish.

The kill came just weeks after the state dumped nearly 200,000 sunshine-bass fingerlings in that same section of the troubled lake.

“A big storm downburst like that can depress oxygen levels in shallow water, and the fish can’t get out of the way fast enough,” said John Benton, a fisheries biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Residents of Killarney Mobile Home and RV Court on Lake Apopka near the Orange-Lake County line said the unpleasant aftereffects were plaguing them Thursday.

“The buzzards are getting full, but there is not much worse than having several thousand putrefying fish in your backyard. It looked like one of those 1970s photos of an ecological disaster out there,” said Joan Sparkovich, owner of the mobile-home park.

Jim Thomas, co-founder of the Friends of Lake Apopka, said he planned to meet with state officials Thursday night to discuss the fish kill and the current condition of the lake.

“There have been bigger fish kills, but this is still significant,” he said. “I think it is drought-related. You get kills this time of year when the water is low, temperatures are high and the nutrients are concentrated.”

Tilapia, catfish, shad and bass were among the species killed, according to Micah Bakenhaster of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Though the state’s fourth-largest lake once was hailed as a sports-fishing paradise, those days are long gone. Agricultural pesticides, municipal sewage and effluent from citrus processing were dumped into Lake Apopka beginning in the 1940s until the mid-1980s. Those pollutants triggered uncontrollable algae that destroyed much of its once-abundant fish and wildlife.

Restoration efforts have been costly. More than $115 million has been spent so far. In an effort to rebuild the bass population, the state plans to stock the lake with 600,000 bass fingerlings this year. Sparkovich watched the first of those fish being dumped off her dock two weeks ago. On Thursday, she and her husband counted dozens of them among the dead fish floating in the lake.

Still, there are signs of improving conditions, she said.

“Lake Apopka gets a bad rap as a giant cesspool, and that is not true anymore,” Sparkovich said. “We can see the health of the waterway improving by the number of shore birds, raptors, eagles, osprey and herons that have returned.”

From Staff and Wire Reports