For two decades commercial fishermen and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have battled over rules regulating the size of holes on fishing nets. Fishermen say smaller mesh decimates fish populations, while FWC officials say it’s the larger mesh that does the real harm. But, one scientist says both parties are guilty of telling fish stories.
Commercial fisherman Keith Ward makes his living scouring the coastal waters around St. Marks for mullet, a small gray fish that live near piers in the area. For the first time in twenty years he’s catching mullet using a net with a mesh gap larger than two inches, starting just hours after Leon Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford reaffirmed her ruling that Florida Fish and Wildlife rules limiting net mesh size not only harm commercial fishermen but, actually harm the mullet fish population they’re supposed to protect
“The status quo, I believe and in my opinion has resulted in unnecessary killing and waste and by the adoption of the FWC rules after the net ban amendment, it’s resulted in an unfair application of the net ban,” Fulford said during a Wednesday hearing.
In order to prevent overharvesting, Florida voters ratified a constitutional amendment in 1994 that limits the size of all nets to 500 square feet and further bans the use of gill nets, which catch fish by entangling their gills. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took those rules further by also regulating a net’s mesh size according to what fish a person is catching. And after two decades of court battles the question of whether it was fair to further limit a net’s mesh size made it to Judge Fulford’s bench. She sided with Keith Ward and other commercial fishermen who argued the two-inch rule has devastated their livelihoods.
“Used to [be] this time of year – if it was before ’95, you would’ve seen fifty boats – mullet boats out here today on this ride we took and… that’s all jobs that’s gone,” Ward said sitting atop his old, leaky fishing boat. “That’s all people that used to work. St. Marks used to have fifty-seventy five mullet fishermen, now I’m the last mullet fishermen in St. Marks.”
Ward asserts the 2-inch rule makes it close to impossible to catch marketable fish. He said more often than not, he catches juvenile fish that end up dying after being thrown back into the water – an act he says contradicts the FWC rules which were intended to prevent wasteful fishing. But, Florida Fish and Wildlife researcher Brent Winner retorted that if Ward’s assertions were true, the mullet population would be declining, not growing.