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Florida judge shows callous disregard for fishing

If you don’t think good fishing can be attacked at virtually any moment, think again. Moreover, it can come from an unexpected source in the form of a county judge.

In a shocking decision, Leon County (Fla.) Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford has set the stage for hundreds of indiscriminate killers called gill nets to descend on the state’s waters after a 20-year ban. For recreational anglers like me, it has generated both anger and disbelief.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance sent out notice to all its Florida members this week urging them to contact their lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott, requesting an immediate emergency moratorium be ordered on commercial netting to uphold the state’s Constitution to protect the resource.

The reference is to Florida Constitutional Amendment 3 banning gill nets and nets that entangle and restricting other forms of nets like seines, cast nets and trawls to a maximum of 500 square feet with no greater than 2-inch mesh size. It was implemented in 1995 following a whopping 72 percent approval by Florida voters. The “Save Our Sealife” campaign was led by Karl Wickstrom, editor-in-chief of Florida Sportsman magazine and it generated more than a half-million signatures to get on the ballot.

The amendment has been the target of commercial fisherman ever since. Attorneys for the Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association “have finally found a judge willing to overturn the will of the people by stopping enforcement of Florida’s ‘net ban’ entirely,” RFA executive director Jim Donofrio said. He contends this will result in netters, who are now working out-of-state waters, descending on Florida because the ban can no longer be enforced by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Fulford’s decision included an automatic stay. However, she lifted that stay when, as expected, the FWC quickly filed an appeal in the First District Court of Appeals. That forces the state commission to now file an emergency appeal to the First District Court of Appeals requesting it reimpose a stop to Fulford’s order while the case is further litigated.

It appears that Fulford took issue with the rules the FWC imposed to implement the net-ban amendment. In particular, the FWC’s definition that any net with a mesh size over 2 inches is a gill net. She claims it has resulted in an unfair application of the net ban to some and not others. The commercial fisherman say being able to use nets with a greater mesh size than has been allowed under FWC rules will permit mullet fishermen to catch more marketable fish without the needless killing and waste of juveniles. Coincidentally, the lucrative mullet row season is just beginning.

But gill and entanglement nets, which have been banned in many of the nation’s waters from the Great Lakes to the Gulf shores, are efficient fish killers. As the name implies, fish get entangled by their gills in the net. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a mullet or other fish not targeted: if its gills are caught in the net, it will likely die.

Scientific data shows that several fish stocks, including mullet, sea trout and Spanish mackerel have seen great improvement since the net ban went into effect. FWC attorney Jonathan Glogau told the judge that by lifting the stay she would “effectively unleash a war of epic proportions” on mullet populations by commercial fishermen unfettered by net regulations. She did it anyway.

“So it’s blood and guts, black and white, no deal,” the commercial fishermen’s attorney Ron Mowry reportedly said.

For those Florida fishing boat dealers, as well as recreational anglers, the deal needs to be a stay or an emergency order reimposing the net ban. Contacting lawmakers and, particularly, the governor’s office at (850) 488-7146 appears to be the best move now.

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