"God has given us the responsibility to be good stewards of our natural resources. The FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission) guidelines only allowing 2-inch maximum size nets caused us to be terrible stewards of what God has given us" said Owen Stewart, my neighbor and new fishing buddy. Owen has been a commercial fisherman for 20 something years and he could remember when the net laws made better sense.
He continued, "I can remember when the minimum size net was 3 inches so that the juvenile fish could swim through the net without being gilled."
The net ban controversy has reopened with a judge ruling the gill net ban "a legal absurdity."
This is my first year commercial fishing. Before this year I knew nothing of gill net ban history, or rivalries between the sport fishermen vs. commercial fishermen. I always loved fishing and admired both the commercial and sports fisherman but did not realize the animosity toward each other until moving to Southwest Florida.
After retirement from the teaching profession, I moved to Pine Island and started my adventure of inshore fishing. I began reading my new fishing magazines and other articles to find some political history of opposition between the sport fisherman and commercial fisherman. The statements I read in my magazines and online articles contained statements like "we pushed hard for the net ban," "commercial fisherman were harming mullet," "the net ban was backed by biologists," "the net ban has helped several species of fish rebound."
I met my neighbor, Owen, who presented another side of this political coin. There seemed to be no media to present the side of the legitimate commercial mullet fisherman until Judge Becky Fulford began her study of the net ban. Her research concluded that it was "a legal absurdity" and struck down the law.
When the judge overruled the net ban, Owen and I were fishing with four shots (500 square feet of net with one 4 inch and three nets and 4 inch). We fished like this briefly during the red roe mullet season. During our fishing expeditions, I carried a news article with me where an FWC official stated "The FWC will uphold the court's decision," to prove to the marine patrol that the FWC would uphold the court's ruling.
My initial observations of the commercial net fisherman were quite puzzling. I saw commercial fishing vessels carrying mini 8-foot boats, and series of weighted contraptions that release nets separately without being tied together. This I found to be an absurd enforcement by the FWC. I asked Owen why there are such silly laws being enforced by the FWC.
He said, "The purpose of the law was to put us out of business. Commercial fishermen can only have two shots of 500 square foot continuous net per boat which makes it physically impossible to make a circumference around circle of fish. This requirement forces the fisherman to have a mini boat in order to deploy the extra two nets. The FWC also required the nets not be tied together which forced us to improvise and come up with aggravating inventions to deploy the nets without breaking the law."
A few weeks after the court decision, the Marine Patrol came aboard multiple net boats to warn commercial fishermen to be in compliance with the net ban. When they boarded our boat, Owen proceeded to explain to the two young officers how ridiculous these laws were.
Owen went on to say "that going back to a 2-inch net will continue to kill juvenile fish which makes us terrible stewards of the environment which we are supposed to protect." The officers would not tell us their personal opinion on the matter, but only looked down with the reply "our job is to enforce the law."
We are now back in compliance with the 2-inch net regulation. I daily shake my head and say, "God forgive our state for this law," as we remove several dead pinfish, finger mullet, baby snapper, grunt and multiple other fish from our nets. Now I saw what judge Becky Fulford viewed with my own eyes. Every net will gill something. I have some questions and I need answers. Is this what the ACC and FWC want? Is this what the biologist support? I taught high school biology and it doesn't make any sense to me. Were there any legitimate net fisherman that believed in conservation asked for counsel when they came up with these rules and regulations.
I know there are commercial fishermen that don't care about conservation. But the ones that I know and work with seem to think alike and are willing to be wise stewards of what God gave us "dominion over." I have met at least 20 commercial fishermen so far and this seems to be the topic of every conversation. Again and again I hear, "If they would just give us 200 yards of any size mesh, we wouldn't be killing juvenile fish and we could eliminate the ridiculous extra boat and the crazy net releases."
For several years it sure seems to me that the CCA (Coastal Conservation Association Florida) has the ear of the FWC, which seems to be trying to put the well boat mullet fisherman out of business by reducing his net size, length of net, meshes per tie to where they would all go broke and stop fishing. Fortunately for the mullet fishermen, they have managed to survive even with these Pharisaical discrimination laws.
"The law the public voted on was not the 2-inch regulation. That interpretation was put into law by the FWC officials who are influenced by the CCA" said Owen. He continued, "It's not fair. The commercial fisherman has been discriminated against for years."
I hope this controversy will be resolved with truthfulness and fairness. Perhaps the laws that come about should be discussed with a committee comprised of input from both commercial and sports fisherman. I would like to see respect between the fishing guides and commercial fishermen. These two groups of fishing pros should resolve their differences and live and work together in peace.
Next time you see a well boat carrying an 8-foot mini boat with silly release mechanisms, think of us in our dilemma and write the FWC or CCA and tell them what you think. Pine Island and Matlacha are fishing community filled with sport fisherman, commercial fisherman, four fish houses where the fresh is best, local restaurants serving the local catch and, of course, the annual free fish fry at First Baptist Pine Island with donations from owners of local fish houses on Bokeelia and St. James City. May our community come together and patronize the local commercial fisherman, guides, fish houses and restaurants.
Let's work toward harmony.
Mark Richard Williams is a resident of St. James City.