Gill Net Ruling Overturned by Appeals Court

 Florida’s gill net ban is legal

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Fish and Wildlife Service worker on boat checking gill net full of fish – photo by Pedro Ramirez Jr./U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Florida’s First District Court of Appeals has overturned an uninformed judge’s ruling and upheld the state’s net ban amendment.

Back in October, Leon County Circuit Court judge Jackie Lee Fulford ruled 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 was a “legal absurdity” and ordered a halt to the enforcement of the net ban, which took effect on July 1, 1995. That ruling was in spite of numerous court rulings over the past 19 years that the net ban is legal.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi immediately filed an appeal on behalf of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to keep the ruling from taking effect. When Fulford rejected the appeal, saying she thought the netters who filed the net ban challenge would win on appeal and were being denied the right to make a living, netters in the Panhandle of Florida and Jacksonville went wild, killing as many mullet as they could so they could sell the baitfish’s roe, which is a delicacy in the Far East.

Meanwhile, Bondi went to the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, which on Nov. 6 reinstated the stay of the judge’s ruling.

The three-judge appellate panel made its ruling on July 7, noting that Fulford “erred in determining [the netters’] claims were not barred by [past legal precedent].” They also held that the judge was wrong to allow gill-netting to take place while the case was pending.

“This is a big win for all recreational anglers, and CCA Florida will continue to be the outspoken advocate and protector of the constitutional amendment, which has protected Florida’s marine fisheries and the multibillion dollar economic value of fisheries to Florida’s economy,” said Coastal Conservation Association Florida Chairman Fred Crabill.

The appellate court’s ruling raises questions about Fulford’s qualifications to be on the bench. (The only way she can be removed from the bench, aside from being voted out when her current six-year term ends in 2017, is by legislative impeachment. But Fulford serves in Wakulla County, which is where many netters live and where a handful of them brought forth this latest challenge, so she’ll probably be on the bench until she retires.)

Instead of getting a range of opinions on why the constitutional net ban amendment, which was approved by 72 percent of Florida voters in 1994, is valid, Fulford listened only to the netters. She also apparently didn’t consider the benefits of the net ban to the state’s population of snook, redfish, tarpon, Spanish mackerel and other species that eat mullet.

The netters’ claim was the net ban’s 2-inch mesh requirement prevents them from catching mullet because the mesh size is too small. In addition, they said the small mesh size catches and kills too many small fish, which they can’t sell.

Fulford went on the water with some netters who deployed their nets to show her how ineffective they are. According to a source of mine who was out there watching, the netters deliberately set their nets in a spot where they were unlikely to catch mullet but would catch plenty of small fish. Fulford, according to my source, had no clue what was happening.

She also took issue with the net ban’s prohibition of all entangling nets except cast nets and the “absurdity” of the FWC allowing netters to use seine nets, which occasionally entangle fish. In her final judgment, she wrote that it appears the FWC is enforcing the net ban only to keep mullet fishermen from fishing.

The FWC allowed netters to use small seines so they could catch some mullet. The seines are nowhere near as deadly as gill nets. A former netter told me how he and his grandfather would stretch a gill net across the mouth of a creek at high tide and retrieve it at low tide when every mullet in the creek was flushed out and caught in the net. One good set like that could earn them $1,000 or more.

Fulford apparently also didn’t consider that netters still catch plenty of mullet using seines and cast nets – 12.5 million pounds in 2011. Compared to the early 1990s, when they were catching more than 25 million pounds of mullet a year, it’s no surprise that gill netters aren’t happy about having to work harder to catch fewer mullet.

Had they limited their netting 20 years ago, there might not be a net ban, but the netters refused and were arrogant about it.

I remember that when recreational anglers would complain about poor fishing for sea trout and Spanish mackerel, which were allowed to be netted, netters would say the problem was the anglers didn’t know how to fish.

When the net ban amendment was put on the ballot, the netters never thought it would pass. Now they are suffering the consequences, but I say too bad. They had their chance to do the right thing. And the benefits to the state’s mullet population and the gamefish that feed on them are well worth the inconvenience.

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Steve Waters has been the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel since August of 1990. He got his start in journalism in Charleston, S.C., where he was a sportswriter and covered sailing. In his spare time, he fished for striped bass on the famed Santee-Cooper lakes with one of the high school football coaches he knew and later bought a bass boat so he could fish there on his own. When his sports editor at his next paper, The Tuscaloosa News, found out he had a boat, he asked him if he wanted to cover the outdoors in addition to covering the Crimson Tide. It wasn't long before Waters realized that writing about fishing was way more fun than covering Alabama football. He went on to cover the outdoors for two more newspapers and a TV station, as well as sports ranging from golf and baseball to NASCAR and the NHL, before writing full-time about fishing, boating, sailing, diving, hunting, powerboat racing and environmental issues for the Sun Sentinel.

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