An appeals court showed reassuring regard for the rule of law and Florida natural resources in overturning a Panhandle judge’s loopy ruling against the state’s net ban.
Last fall, Leon Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford put in jeopardy the voter-approved law banning the use of gill nets in state waters.
Though the ban had consistently been upheld in the courts, Fulford labeled it a “legal absurdity” and said the rules the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission developed to enact the amendment created “an absolute mess.”
This was nonsense. Fulford is the one who made a mess of things.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee last week found Fulford ignored legal precedent in her ruling.
The appeals court already had restored the net ban while her ruling was under appeal, something she had refused to do.
In 1994, 72 percent of Florida voters endorsed a constitutional amendment calling for the gill net ban. Recreational fishing groups resorted to an amendment campaign after influential commercial fishing interests continually blocked efforts to adopt meaningful safeguards for our fisheries.
The ban has proved remarkably effective. The numbers of sportfish such as snook, redfish and trout increased dramatically. Mullet, various types of baitfish and other species whose numbers had dwindled also enjoyed tremendous population increases.
The commercial fishing industry has repeatedly challenged the law, but judges consistently upheld it.
But Fulford sided with the commercial industry’s claim that the 2-inch mesh size required by the state rules kills a significant number of juvenile fish, which could harm fish populations.
The more thoughtful and studious 1st District Court of Appeal noted the rule challenge had been addressed in a 2007 case, where the judge found the conservation commission had “presented expert testimony that the mullet population remains healthy and has actually increased since the implementation of the two-inch net mesh limitation. This testimony ... is sufficient to establish a rational basis for [the commission’s] adoption of the challenged rules as a means of furthering the goal of protecting marine resources.”
Fulford’s ruling ignored judicial precedent and biological evidence, and deserved to be jettisoned.
The appeals court decision may not be the end of the litigation. The netters will likely plan other attacks.
But after 20 years, it’s time the commercial fishing industry accepted the will of the people and the law.