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.