Court reinstates temporary lifting of gill-net ban

Using commercial gill nets in Florida waters — banned for 18 years — suddenly became legal for nearly a week in early November.

No reports their use were seen in Florida Keys waters before the ban was reinstated Nov. 6 by an appeals court ruling, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

“If there were, we didn’t hear about it,” said Officer Bobby Dube, FWC spokesman for Monroe County. “Now we’re back at it” to enforce established rules, he said Tuesday.

Current law allows fishermen to have two 500-square-foot nets with 2-inch squares. Fishermen want the squares to be 3 inches. They believe nets with larger mesh sizes (gill nets) can catch target species — primarily mullet — while allowing juveniles to escape.

For several days after Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford ordered the longstanding net ban lifted in late October because of what she described as a “legal absurdity,” FWC officers were prevented by her decision from enforcing the rules.

But on Nov. 6, the First District Court of Appeal reinstated a stay on lifting the ban pending further legal review.

The Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association joined other state commercial groups to seek status as an intervener in support of changing laws on gill nets.

“Nets can be a responsible method of harvest with reasonable limitations in place,” said Bill Kelly, the group’s executive director. “What the industry is seeking is to have the FWC [board of directors] sit down with fishermen to discuss how to better manage fisheries.”

“The industry hopes to come to the table with the FWC and interested environmental groups to see if there is common ground to better manage underutilized fisheries like Spanish mackerel.”

The original lawsuit filed in 2011 by the Wakulla County Commercial Fishermen’s Association and others contends that specific rules on gill nets are arbitrary.

The rules were crafted by state fishery managers after Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a 1994 constitutional amendment banning the use of gill nets in state waters. Groups like the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida ardently oppose lifting the gill-net rules.

“Massive schools of spawning mullet will be slaughtered by hundreds of netters returning to the coastline with their huge gillnets,” said Ted Forsgren of the CCA. “Commercial netters from North Carolina to Louisiana will be swarming Florida to jump on the spawning fish this fall.”

Kelly said the ramifications of Fulford’s decision and the appeals court ruling could keep the issue in court for a year or more.

Commercial fishermen have been frustrated by the FWC’s unwillingness to amend rules, Kelly said.

“There were some improprieties” with gill-net fishing before the 1994 referendum, “due to the lack of reasonable rules to avoid conflicts,” Kelly said. “A lot of things can be done to avoid those.”

The CCA says the current rules have not overly limited commercial fishing but have allowed several key saltwater species to increase their populations.

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