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November 8, 2013

Hackles Raised Over Gill Netting in Florida

After an all-out gill net assault on Florida’s mullet population, order has been restored.

My blog last week told how a circuit court judge in Florida’s Panhandle ruled that the state’s constitutional net ban amendment, which has been in effect for more than 18 years, was not, in her opinion, being correctly interpreted and enforced by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and therefore netters could once again use gill nets.

At that time, the state attorney general had filed an appeal, which put a stay on the judge’s ruling.  Problems resulted when that judge, Jackie Lee Fulford, rejected the appeal on the basis that she believed the netters who challenged the amendment would win on appeal and would be hurt if the stay on her ruling remained.

Netters wasted no time in pulling their old gill nets out of storage, buying up as many new nets as they could and killing as many mullet as possible, mainly in the Panhandle and Jacksonville area. Several netters posted photos of their nets filled with gilled mullet in their boats on Facebook.

Unfortunately, on Nov. 1, the FWC decided not to enforce the net ban amendment. According to a source with the FWC, the agency was afraid it might get sued if law enforcement officers arrested netters and the judge’s ruling was later upheld.

According to prominent Fort Lauderdale attorney Ali Waldman, the FWC had nothing to worry about.

“They should wait until the ruling has gone through all of the challenges, and all of the appeals, before they stop enforcing the amendment,” she said. “It’s silly.”

The state attorney’s office kept at it, and on the afternoon of Nov. 6, the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, Fla., reinstated the stay of the judge’s ruling. Col. Calvin Adams Jr. of the FWC quickly sent out a memorandum that said, “Effective immediately, we are resuming enforcement of the net [ban] amendment and all associated statutes and rules.”

Adams went on to say that officers should use discretion in case they come across netters who are not aware of the stay, which will be the defense of every mullet netter they come across from here on out.

In the meantime, the appeals process must play out. Coastal Conservation Association Florida, which played a critical role in getting the net ban amendment passed by 72 percent of Florida’s voters in 1994, has intervened in the appeal.

My belief is that Judge Fulford has been grossly misinformed by the netters who sued the FWC and has no understanding of the issue. In her final judgement, she noted that the net ban prohibits all entangling nets except cast nets, so it is absurd that FWC allows netters to use seine nets, which occasionally entangle fish. She also wrote that it appears FWC is enforcing the net ban only to keep mullet fishermen from fishing.

The thing is, netters caught 12.5 million pounds of mullet in 2011 using seines and cast nets, so it’s not like they can’t catch mullet without a gill net. It’s just harder to catch mullet using those nets compared to gill nets, which catch more mullet with less effort.

Before the net ban, netters were catching upwards of 25 million pounds of mullet a year, which was hurting the mullet population as well as the populations of gamefish that feed on them such as redfish, snook and tarpon.

It certainly would be fitting if, because of the lawsuit and Fulford’s ruling, the FWC decides to outlaw seines. Of course, knowing the lengths to which netters will go to fight the net ban, the FWC might also have to outlaw dip nets because there is a chance that while netting a shrimp or crab, you could entangle a glass minnow.

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“I Will Never Forget”

In many cultures, mountains and water have a special significance and attraction. In China, an ancient song titled “High Mountains and Flowing Water” represents cherished friendship. In the Bible, Psalm 23’s well-known verse three teaches, “He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul,” and those of us who pursue fly fishing in the mountains around moving water know the therapeutic value of a day spent on the water.

In 2007, a group in Bozeman decided that this experience would help aid in the recovery of our nation’s wounded warriors from the injuries, both physical and psychological, that they received during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From this idea sprang the Bozeman-based Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation for which I served as both the volunteer director of fly fishing operations and a board member from 2007-2010. During that time, the program grew from two five-day events to eight events that served 40-50 wounded warriors and their spouses each year.

The typical fishing experience is a five-day event that begins with equipment fitting, compliments of Simms Fishing Products, followed by a day of fly fishing instruction on a local pond; we call it Fly Fishing 101. Events typically conclude with two days of guided fishing and a sight-seeing trip into Yellowstone National Park.

Participants with injuries ranging from bilateral amputations to post-traumatic stress disorder come from military medical facilities across the U.S. and are fully equipped, accommodated and cared for during their stay by a group of dedicated Warriors and Quiet Waters volunteers.

I’ve been fortunate to have been involved with Warriors and Quiet Waters and another great therapeutic fly fishing program, Project Healing Waters, for seven years. During that time, I’ve seen first-hand the palpable impact that time spent in the mountains, around flowing water and fly fishing has on these wounded warriors and vets.

I could tell their stories myself, but the most powerful testimonies come directly from the participants themselves.

Fly fishing has given me a chance to ease my mind. There is no peace quite like being on the river surrounded by surreal beauty with only a friend, Mother Nature and yourself. When I leave the river, I feel rejuvenated and optimistic.”

– Avery, a wounded U.S. Army soldier

“I really wanted to mention the day we had at the creek. I had a great time, and even if I had not caught a single fish it would have still been tops. The scenery was great, the wildlife was awesome and I could have just sat on the bank and imagined I was in heaven. I will never forget my day on the creek. It was like a year’s worth of therapy wrapped into a single moment.”

– John C., U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class

Testimonies such as these underscore the importance of ensuring that all Americans can enjoy a day on the water or discover the camaraderie forged during trips afield. These experiences would be harder to come by if not for the groundwork laid by the forefathers of conservation like Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and others. And groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited help uphold our nation’s great conservation legacy.

We do this because these high mountains and flowing water experiences change lives, and, in some cases, they even save them. I will leave you with the following story from Chris, a U.S. Air Force wounded warrior:

While I was in the ICU, I died three times, flat-lined. I don’t recall much, except for the last time. The last time I flat-lined I do recall accepting it that my body just could not handle the stress of it any longer. Things were going dark for me, but I remembered a Warriors and Quiet Waters fishing trip that I took to Montana. I was fishing at the place where they filmed the movie A River Runs Through It. I saw the old train tracks, and I saw myself sitting on a rock just fishing, not trying too hard, but just relaxing. It was the most relaxing place ever for me. But, I knew I was going to die and this was it. But when this happened, I pictured my son sitting on the rock with me smiling away as we were fishing. Then, all the alarms were going off in ICU, but I accepted it and then everything went black. Four days or so later I woke up. I was out the entire time. I was told by the nurse I flat-lined three times and almost died. In her words it was a miracle I am still alive.

Images courtesy Dave Kumlien.

Geoff Mullins

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November 4, 2013

Fishing and Fun Mix with Forums at the TRCP Saltwater Media Summit in Islamorada

“To capture the fish is not all of the fishing.” – Zane Grey, Tales of Fishes

Fishing is so much more than just catching fish.

It’s also about the experience – the adventure, the thinking and the thrill of the chase that is all wrapped up into a great time on the water. Therefore, it is no accident the TRCP has held our Saltwater Media Summit in Florida for the past three years.

If you want to talk about saltwater fishing and the importance of conservation, then Florida is a perfect backdrop.  If you also want experience great fishing and get folks out on the water seeing these issues first-hand, then the “Fishing Capital of the World” is the perfect playground.

In fact, the Sunshine State is the center of the universe when it comes to saltwater recreational fishing.  According to statistics from the American Sportfishing Association, Florida sees nearly 2.4 million saltwater anglers per year. This activity injects approximately $6.8 billion into the economy and accounts for more than 65,000 jobs.

The TRCP hosts these gatherings of media members each year for three main reasons: (1) to identify and discuss pressing conservation issues, (2) develop and strengthen key relationships and (3) ultimately tell the story about the importance of conservation and the link it has to our ability to enjoy the thrill of fishing.

While all are important, developing the relationships and forming bonds through a shared experience has the most lasting impact. To bring folks down to Islamorada, put them in a boat with rod in hand and have them experience the great, well-managed resources Florida has to offer is irreplaceable. The folks at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Visit Florida, and the Florida Keys & Key West recognize this and rolled out the red carpet to the TRCP and our summit attendees. Nothing stays with you more than good memories, and those were abundant on Florida Bay last month.

Which brings me to my own fishing memories forged at the media summit: I had the good fortune of fishing with Dave Mezz, deputy editor of Garden & Gun magazine. That morning, we made a long run past numerous flats and mangrove islands to find a most spectacular display of tarpon busting pilchards on the surface.

Mullins with snook
The author with his first snook in Islamorada, Fla.

As we anchored, a Spanish mackerel jumped into the boat and landed in our live well. It took only one toss of the cast net for bait and we were in business.

On his very first cast, Dave was hooked into his first-ever tarpon. The fish put on quite a show…we had never experienced anything like it. After a few more pilchards, I too had the joy of feeling that great jolt of electricity on the end of the line – my first tarpon as well! Never had I felt such speed as the line ran off the reel. The acrobatics of the fish are pure joy and only make you want to catch another one.

After a few more hookups but unsuccessful fights, we moved farther into the creeks as the tide continued to drop. We cast our baits into the mouths of the emptying creeks and let them swing out into the main channel. Pretty soon, we both felt the subtle thump of the snook. This fish was an equally delightful fighter and had his own unique tactics for evasion. Once near the boat, he too put on an aerial display and tail walk trying desperately to throw the hook. To our good fortune, both Dave and I landed our first snook ever this morning as well.

The TRCP Saltwater Media Summit was a rewarding event for many reasons. We made new relationships, discussed some critical issues and furthered the message of conservation for these important fisheries. But when I tell the story years from now, it will begin as the day I caught my first tarpon and snook. Now that’s fishing!

Whit Fosburgh

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After Shutdown, the Stakes are High for Hunters and Anglers

October was hardly Washington’s finest month. A government shutdown that served no purpose and cost Americans more than $20 billion. Hunters and anglers denied access to national wildlife refuges and parks. The spectacle of lawmakers who caused the shutdown, once they were certain the cameras were rolling, berating park rangers who were simply doing their jobs.

It’s no wonder Americans hold our elected officials in such low regard.

But today the government is open; Congress has an opportunity to actually legislate. And the stakes for conservation are high.

The next two months will be dominated by two topics that directly impact conservation and hunting and fishing: The Farm Bill and the federal budget.

The Farm Bill: ‘Must-pass’ Legislation

The Farm Bill, which includes the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Open Fields public access program, among others, is the single most important piece of legislation for conservation on private lands. The current version of the bill expired on Sept. 30 after the House of Representatives and the Senate failed to (“never tried to” is more accurate) resolve the differences between their two bills.  The main point of disagreement is over funding for the bill’s nutrition title, which includes food stamps and school lunches.

Assuming lawmakers can agree on nutrition funding, which is not a given, the debate over the conservation title of the bill will center on two issues: re-linking conservation compliance with crop insurance and the Sodsaver program. Together these programs help ensure that the federal government is not creating incentives to drain wetlands and convert native prairie and highly erodible lands to row crops.

The Farm Bill and its conservation title have the potential to dramatically impact the fish and wildlife populations and outdoor opportunities relied upon by millions of Americans. The bill is “must-pass” legislation, and all sportsmen should make sure that Congress understands this.

The Federal Budget: The Stakes for Conservation Have Never Been Higher

The budget debate has implications for literally every conservation program in the country, from how our public lands are managed to funding that supports state management of our fish and wildlife and even the grant programs that drive the work of Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and so many other conservation groups.

While entitlements and defense-security spending have steadily increased, conservation funding has plummeted. From about 2.5 percent of the federal budget in the 1970s, conservation funding now represents only about 1 percent of the budget. The House budget would accelerate this trend by zeroing out funding for key conservation programs such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act while further gutting the already underfunded federal lands management agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under the agreement that reopened the government, Congress has until Jan. 15 to come to a budget agreement, which not only will fund the government through Sept. 2014; it also will become the starting point for fiscal year 2015 budget negotiations.

If the government shutdown has a silver lining, it is that the crucial importance of our nation’s parks and refuges became impossible to ignore. These places are not expendable luxuries; they are a fundamental part of the American economy and the American identity. People care about them – and rely upon them. Theodore Roosevelt understood this more than a century ago. Perhaps today’s politicians now do, as well.

Look to the TRCP to keep you informed and involved as these key initiatives require attention in Congress. Sign up for our weekly emails to stay up to date on the latest news and policy important to sportsmen.

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Everglades National Park Back in Business

Everglades mangrove snapper
With the government shutdown over, fishing guides and their clients have returned to Everglades National Park. Photo by Mac Stone.

The end of the federal government shutdown was especially good news for guides who fish in Everglades National Park.

For the first time in more than two weeks, they were allowed to legally fish in park waters.

“People don’t realize the effects of the shutdown on guides,” said Capt. Jason Sullivan, who lost several trips because of the park closure.

That anglers were not allowed to fish in the park, even though many of them access the waters in Florida Bay and along the Gulf of Mexico coastline by boat, was bureaucratic pettiness at its worst.

It was one thing not to allow anglers to drive their tow vehicles into the park and launch their boats at Flamingo. But what did it matter if guides drove their boats across park boundaries from the Florida Keys?

That was the same spiteful mentality behind the National Park Service putting up barricades at the open-air World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., although federal bureaucrats said they had no choice but to close the park.

At least Everglades National Park’s rangers didn’t hassle boaters who ended up in park waters, some of whom didn’t realize they were not allowed in the park and some of whom didn’t care. The rangers told boaters and anglers they could not stop in park waters and sent them on their way without issuing any citations.

Capt. Brian Sanders was one of the lucky ones. He fishes out of Chokoloskee Island on the northwest side of the park and typically goes after snook and redfish in park waters along Gulf beaches and islands.

With the park shut down, Sanders headed 30-plus miles into the Gulf so his clients could fish for snapper and grouper. Fortunately, he had good weather that allowed him to make the long run in his 24-foot bay boat. Even better, the fish were biting – so good, in fact, that after park waters reopened, he still made the trek into the Gulf.

Sanders said that some guides still fished in the park during the closure because of economic necessity.

“I talked to a few of them,” he said. “They said, ‘The park’s not going to pay my mortgage for me, and the park’s not going to pay my bills for me,’ so they went fishing. This was not a lot of days, it was a few days. Those days they never saw anybody.”

Sullivan said he, too, was fortunate. He said he lost about four trips. He could have lost more, but he was able to talk his clients into fishing at night for tarpon and snook in Biscayne Bay in Miami.

Guides in the Keys either had to cancel trips for snook, redfish and tarpon in the park or, like Sanders, make a long run into the Gulf of Mexico or fish shallow reefs in the Atlantic Ocean for Spanish mackerel, snapper and grouper.

As soon as they were allowed back in the park, guides out of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada reported great fishing for snook and tarpon, according to marina owner Richard Stanczyk.

Stanczyk did note that the timing of the shutdown was good because early October is a slow time of year for business.

“Out of our 24 guides, only six were fishing,” said Stanczyk, who added that all of his marina’s guides obeyed the rules and stayed out of the park. “None of them lost any trips, but there were people who didn’t book trips because of the closure.”

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