Florida’s ban on net fishing near shore debated again

Most Floridians probably have thought little about restrictions on net fishing in Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf waters that took effect 18 years ago under a state constitutional amendment approved by 72 percent of voters.

The aim of the measure banning gill nets and limiting other types of nets to a maximum of 500 square feet was to protect inshore fish stocks—mullet, pompano, redfish, snook and others—from overharvest. Since the net ban took effect in 1995, several stocks have bounced back to healthy levels and South Floridians pretty much forgot all about the issue — until now.

Several commercial fishers in North Florida have never stopped fighting the netting laws in state courts, and last month convinced Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford to strike the limitations down. For about a week, commercial fishers struck their gill nets with impunity, harvesting unknown numbers of mullet and other species until Nov. 6 when the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee granted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s petition to stop them.

Now, the FWC — joined by Coastal Conservation Association Florida, a prominent recreational fishing group—is asking the court to permanently uphold netting restrictions while the Wakulla Commercial Fishermen’s Association—joined by the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association — wants the rules thrown out.

Captain Bill Kelly, executive director of the Keys group, says he and his colleagues would like to sit down with FWC officials, recreational anglers, conservation groups and others to negotiate a solution and avoid a lengthy court battle.

“We would like the opportunity to harvest Spanish mackerel, pompano and mullet in state waters,” Kelly said. “We’d like to see the use of gill nets with the appropriate mesh size for the appropriate targets.”

Kelly said his group would agree to catch limits and establishing areas where netting would be prohibited, such as beaches and residential canals.

Current state laws ban gill nets out to three miles in Atlantic waters and out to nine miles in the Gulf. A gill net is defined as any net with a stretched mesh greater than two inches. The Keys has a thriving commercial gill net fishery in federal waters with 17 active fishermen pursuing king mackerel under a federal quota system, according to Kelly. He says bycatch—netting unintended species—is less than one-10th of 1 percent.

“One of the cleanest, most robust fisheries there is,” Kelly declared.

He believes the same kind of gear would be suitable for harvesting Spanish mackerel, pompano and mullet in state waters.

“They could fill enormous consumer demand,” he said.

Since the gill net ban, black mullet has been harvested primarily with cast nets, or hand-thrown nets, and shipped mostly for their roe to the Far East. According to the latest figures from the FWC, the average price of roe is nearly $7 per pound while the fish themselves go for about 75 cents. Kelly believes there could be a healthy market for mullet as a food fish in the Keys.

“It would be a win for fishermen and win for consumers as well,” he said.

Meanwhile, recreational anglers are outraged at the notion of weakening or repealing netting restrictions in Florida. They fear a return to what they call the “bad old days” when their favorite species and those species’ prey were being decimated by nets.

“We will spend every penny necessary to protect the constitutional ban on gill netting,” CCA Florida chairman Jim Williams said.

The netting imbroglio is not listed on the agenda for next week’s FWC meeting in Weston, but commissioners are likely to bring it up.

In the meantime, says FWC spokeswoman Amanda Nalley, “we have always been and continue to be willing to discuss the issue with all parties, but we also respect the judicial process and will stay within the bounds directed by the courts.”