November 6, 2013 – During the heyday of unregulated commercial fishing, Florida fishermen witnessed thousands of gillnets catching tons of both predator and prey fish with virtually zero management.
Then came a 1990’s campaign called Save Our Sealife led by Florida Sportsman’s Karl Wickstrom which generated more than a half-million signatures to secure a constitutional amendment onto a 1994 Florida ballot, approved overwhelmingly by 72% of state voters who agreed to support that “No gill or entangling nets shall be used in any Florida waters.”
Now, after nearly 20 years of gillnet free waters, Florida anglers are experiencing some of the finest saltwater fishing the state has ever offered.
The future of Florida’s natural resource – and the will of the people – was completely undermined last week, as Leon County Circuit judge Jackie Fulford overturned the voter-approved, constitutionally protected net ban, while paving the way for wide-scale decimation of Florida fish stocks.
“This decision by judge Fulford is completely reckless and opens the door for a Wild West derby scenario for gillnetters,” said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA). “This judge has now just created an open-ended fishery that takes us back to those early days of unregulated commercial harvest.”
“RFA feels the state of Florida must take emergency action before it’s too late, to find a legislative, regulatory or judicial solution to this mess before we see 20 years of conservation wasted by a vindictive, media hungry judge,” he said.
Judge Fulford, appointed to the Second Circuit Court of Florida in Wakulla County by Governor Charlie Crist in 2009 and elected to a 6-year term in 2010, most recently made headlines by striking down another law requiring state workers contribute to their taxpayer-funded pensions. Attorneys for Governor Rick Scott have appealed that decision to the Florida Supreme Court contending that Fulford incorrectly interpreted the state Constitution in that ruling as well.
“This judge is apparently on a tear to upend the constitution in the state of Florida and make a name for herself in the Florida Supreme Court,” Donofrio said. “This is an obvious cry for attention by a media hungry, politically motivated judge who has no apparent sense of the good that has come from this ban.”
Amendment Three of the Florida Constitution banning gill nets and restricting other forms of nets like seines, cast nets and trawls to a maximum of 500 square feet with no greater than 2-inch mesh size was implemented in July of 1995, and has been the target of many commercial fishermen ever since. Some of those commercial fishermen, notably the Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association and their attorneys, ultimately found a judge willing to overturn the will of the people by stopping the enforcement of Florida’s ‘net ban’ entirely.
While scientific data shows that several fish stocks, particularly mullet, sea trout and Spanish mackerel, have seen accelerated improvement since 1995, Judge Fulford mysteriously said that stopping enforcement of the net ban during court action would not cause “irreparable harm” as she voted down an appeal by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).
Regrettably, since the judge’s ruling last week, “irreparable harm” is already taking place, as netters recently working out-of-state waters because of the net ban have descended upon the Florida in swarms while flooding the local market with more mullet than can capably be processed.
In fact, during the hearing, Jonathan Glogau, the Attorney General’s Office chief of complex litigation and FWC’s lead attorney in the case, told the judge her decision to lift the net ban could “effectively unleash a war of epic proportions” on mullet populations by commercial fishermen unfettered by net regulations.
Donofrio called the 1990’s campaign to end the wanton slaughter of inshore baitfish populations by gillnetters one of the precursors to the founding of RFA as a political action organization for saltwater anglers in 1996, recreational business owners and sustainable fisheries. “Watching Karl Wickstrom of Florida Sportsman leading the charge on this net ban and rallying grassroots support for the constitutional amendment campaign really helped show what political action could accomplish.”
RFA said this politically motivated ruling by the Wakulla County judge should act as the spark to united all anglers and conservation groups to put aside all other differences to pressure the Florida elected officials to take a stand on behalf of the recreational fishing community and the coastal resource.
“Talk about awakening a sleeping giant, this judge’s ruling completely contradicts the will of the people, it violates the constitutionality of the 1994 vote and threatens to undo 20 years of successful conservation practice in her state,” Donofrio said. “It also is pitting the commercial fishermen of Florida against every single member of the recreational fishing community, and I doubt that’s a war they were hoping for.”
“All the recreational fishing organizations and conservation groups are on the same page on this one, it’s a good time for everyone to come together under one specific cause,” Donofrio added.