Florida's 20-Year-Old Net Ban Still Has Anglers And State Regulators Fishing For A Solution

Nov 1, 2013

For two decades commercial fishermen and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have battled over rules regulating the size of holes on fishing nets. Fishermen say smaller mesh decimates fish populations, while FWC officials say it’s the larger mesh that does the real harm. But, one scientist says both parties are guilty of telling fish stories.

Commercial fisherman Keith Ward makes his living scouring the coastal waters around St. Marks for mullet, a small gray fish that live near piers in the area. For the first time in twenty years he’s catching mullet using a net with a mesh gap larger than two inches, starting just hours after Leon Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford reaffirmed her ruling that Florida Fish and Wildlife rules limiting net mesh size not only harm commercial fishermen but, actually harm the mullet fish population they’re supposed to protect

“The status quo, I believe and in my opinion has resulted in unnecessary killing and waste and by the adoption of the FWC rules after the net ban amendment, it’s resulted in an unfair application of the net ban,” Fulford said during a Wednesday hearing.

In order to prevent overharvesting, Florida voters ratified a constitutional amendment in 1994 that limits the size of all nets to 500 square feet and further bans the use of gill nets, which catch fish by entangling their gills. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took those rules further by also regulating a net’s mesh size according to what fish a person is catching. And after two decades of court battles the question of whether it was fair to further limit a net’s mesh size made it to Judge Fulford’s bench. She sided with Keith Ward and other commercial fishermen who argued the two-inch rule has devastated their livelihoods.

“Used to [be] this time of year – if it was before ’95, you would’ve seen fifty boats – mullet boats out here today on this ride we took and… that’s all jobs that’s gone,” Ward said sitting atop his old, leaky fishing boat. “That’s all people that used to work. St. Marks used to have fifty-seventy five mullet fishermen, now I’m the last mullet fishermen in St. Marks.”

Ward asserts the 2-inch rule makes it close to impossible to catch marketable fish. He said more often than not, he catches juvenile fish that end up dying after being thrown back into the water – an act he says contradicts the FWC rules which were intended to prevent wasteful fishing. But, Florida Fish and Wildlife researcher Brent Winner retorted that if Ward’s assertions were true, the mullet population would be declining, not growing.

“As far as stock assessments is concerned the mullet population, the relative size and age in mullet in the population, like in Tampa Bay, have increased over the past ten, twenty years,” Winner pointed out.

According to FWC assessments, the net ban has led to more mullet spawning, not less.  And wildlife officials say it’s because the smaller nets prevent fishermen from killing off spawning females, who can carry up to three-million eggs, or roe, at one time. But, Jack Rudloe, President of Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories, a marine research non-profit, doesn’t believe either party has the environment’s best interest in mind.

“I don’t think they really give a damn about fish populations of any sort,” Rudloe said in a phone interview Friday. “If not, they wouldn’t allow the destruction of wetlands and marsh lands and draining of swamps and pesticides and poisons and all of that.”

Likewise he argued the fishermen are only concerned with their bottom lines.

“Now that being said, I’m really rather disgusted with the fishermen who won’t lift a finger to protect wetlands or stand to protect the habitat whatsoever. So, you know, it’s not good there either,” Rudloe said.

Rudloe believes the twenty-year court battle over net mesh size only serves to distract people from the broader issue of environmental conservation. Meanwhile, state’s attorneys are appealing Fulford’s decision and the original net ban could go back into effect as the case makes its way upstream in the legal system.