In 1994 Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment banning the use of gill nets from state waters, a response to the commercial overfishing that had badly depleted fishing stocks.
Since then coastal fisheries have enjoyed a tremendous recovery, one that could be jeopardized by a Panhandle circuit judge who recently ruled against the ban.
Leon Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford labeled the state’s net ban a “legal absurdity.”
She wrote of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s rules developed to enact the ban: “An absolute mess has been created.”
In fact, it’s the judge who has created a mess, and fortunately, the state’s First District Court of Appeal restored the net ban while it is being appealed, something Fulford had refused to do.
Contrary to what the judge appears to think, some 72 percent of voters knew exactly what they were doing when they adopted the ban on gill nets and entanglement nets.
We had opposed the measure, thinking a popular vote was not the appropriate way to manage fisheries. But voters disagreed and had reason to be frustrated with a politicized system that continually failed to sufficiently protect marine resources.
The measure has been remarkably successful. As former Tribune Outdoors writer Frank Sargeant wrote in The Outdoor Wire, “To determine whether the current rules, now in place nearly 20 years, are having a positive or negative effect on Florida’s inshore’s fisheries, one has only to look at populations of inshore fish: Mullet are perhaps at an all-time modern high, trout are larger and more abundant than they have been in 40 years in much of the state, vast schools of redfish again prowl both inshore and offshore waters, pompano are coming back strongly along the beaches and even ‘junk’ fish like jack crevalle, which also used to be heavily targeted by gillnetters in winter when the mullet were gone, have come back strong.”
Fulford ignored such achievements and focused on the enacting rules.
She found a conflict in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission rules, which set a 2-inch mesh size as the distinction between a legal seine net and illegal gill net.
But those rules were based on historic net use in Florida, and courts have consistently found them justified.
And the judge’s assertion the current ban has resulted in “unnecessary killing and waste” ignores the reality of the rebounding fish numbers since the ban was adopted.
Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office is fighting the ruling, which defies prior court findings and common sense.
It merits a judicial filleting.