Gill nets were banned in state waters more than 18 years ago after 72 percent of the state’s voters approved a constitutional net ban amendment.
Yet netters are still trying to circumvent the ban and now they somehow convinced a judge that the ban needs to be set aside.
A judge in the Panhandle, where the fiercest defenders of gill netting live, ruled last week that the state’s requirement of a 2-inch or smaller stretched mesh size to define the difference between an illegal gill net and a legal seine net is, in her words, a “legal absurdity” and ordered a halt to the enforcement of the net ban, which took effect on July 1, 1995.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi immediately filed an appeal on behalf of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to keep Leon County Circuit Court judge Jackie Lee Fulford’s ruling from taking effect.
“The exact same issue that [Fulford] dealt with has already been dealt with by a lower court and a district court of appeals,” said Ted Forsgren, of the state Coastal Conservation Association, who noted that the netters who were behind the ruling have filed a counter motion to disregard the appeal. “They just keep bringing it up.”
The judge took issue that the 2-inch mesh requirement prevents mullet fishermen from catching mullet because the mesh size is too small, but, according to netters, it catches and kill too many small fish, and they are ever so concerned about the health of young fish.
“When the net ban was enacted, a ‘bright line distinction’ was made between a seine net and a gill net of a 2-inch mesh, which is what they historically had for seine nets,” Forsgren said. “It was put in to clarify what was going on and it’s exactly what [Fulford] unclarified.”
Forsgren also noted that using cast nets and legal seine nets, commercial anglers still caught 12.5 million pounds of mullet statewide in 2011.
Back in the bad old days of the early 1990s, gill netters were in the process of decimating the state’s mullet population by catching upwards of 25 million pounds each year.
At that time, gill netters said they were simply feeding poor people. In actuality, they were getting $1 a pound for mullet laden with roe, which is a delicacy in the Far East. Typically they’d get 25 cents a pound for plain old mullet.
The state’s Marine Fisheries Commission tried to limit the netters, but every time the MFC came up with a regulation, the netters would file an injunction, which would put the regulation on hold for 90 days, which was the length of the fall roe mullet season. Then a court would uphold the regulation, but the netters didn’t care because the roe season was over and they had made their money.
When the net ban passed, the netters tried everything they could think of to circumvent the ban. They filed lawsuits, they used the tarps that are strung on fences around tennis courts as nets, they tried to get Panhandle legislators to override the net ban amendment.
They lost every time.
Here’s hoping they lose again, especially considering that the net ban amendment has worked just as intended: The state’s mullet population is healthy, as are its populations of redfish, sea trout and Spanish mackerel, among other species.