Why are biologists zapping fish in a Florida lake?

BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- Standing on the bow of a 17-foot aluminum boat, Alyssa Jordan and Gaby Ferraro wait for the marine version of an electric cattle prod to do its work. Resembling twin maypoles dragging Lake Okeechobee's South Bay marsh, the metal anodes zap the five-foot waters with an eight-amp electrical current.

The jolt is strong enough to stun a 1 ½-pound bass, a mudfish (bowfin), several shellcrackers (red-ear sunfish) and a bunch of shad. Jordan, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Ferraro, an outreach specialist with the agency, scoop up the stunned fish with long-handled dip nets and dump them in an aerated live well.

''If you miss something, don't worry about it,'' FWC biologist Corey Lee tells his two colleagues as he pilots the boat. After all, it's difficult to scoop up wriggling fish in one of the thickest spikerush and cattail meadows on the 730-square-mile lake.

The FWC crew began electrofishing, or shocking, the lake earlier this month to get an estimate of the number and species of fish left after a two-year drought suddenly gave way to the quickest rise in lake levels in 77 years of record-keeping.

Vast fields of bulrushes and other vegetation were inundated when heavy rains from Tropical Storm Fay's passage through the state in August caused the lake to rise two feet in a week and four feet in a month. Today, lake levels are about 15 feet, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District releasing water into the St. Lucie Canal and Caloosahatchee River to slow the rise.

Now, largemouth bass, crappie (speckled perch), bluegill and other species have spread out all over the lake, reclaiming habitat that once was dry land.

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