NAPLES — After commercial fisherman Jonathon Cannon was found guilty last month of illegally netting 6,500 pounds of mullet off Marco Island, he felt dirty — and wronged.
"I'm not a criminal," Cannon said Friday. "I'm a normal guy who fishes."
That's not how the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or Collier County Judge Rob Crown saw Cannon's case, which wildlife officers and Cannon agree is breaking new ground in the pursuit of illegal net fishing.
Wildlife officers using night vision goggles caught Cannon, 28, from Manatee County, fishing from three boats with Thomas Reynolds, 30, and Joshua Knapek, 29, also both of Manatee County, in January along Tigertail Beach.
Knapek was on the beach, where one net was anchored, and Cannon and Reynolds were in chest-deep water holding together three nets that stretched for several hundred feet to corral a school of thousands of mullet flipping at the surface and jumping in the air, according to Conservation Commission reports.
Florida law, pursuant to a constitutional amendment voters approved in 1994, forbids seine nets with mesh that are larger than 500 square feet.
Commercial fishermen have tried, unsuccessfully, to get around the law by connecting legal nets together, using Velcro, zippers — even wooden dowels — that can easily disconnect the nets.
But Cannon said he and his buddies thought they had come up with a way to fish larger nets legally, by not tying the nets together but by simply holding them together. Crown wasn't buying it.
He found Cannon guilty in July of using an illegal net, fined him $32,000 and sentenced him to one year of probation, 20 days of weekend work release and took away his fishing license during his probation. The other two men are awaiting trial. Cannon is appealing the conviction.
In legal jargon, Cannon's case is a "case of first impression," which means it is the first of its kind, Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carli Segelson said.
As word gets out about Cannon's conviction and hefty fine, the deterrent could make Cannon's case the last, said Capt. Rob Beaton of the Conservation Commission's field operations office in Tallahassee.
"Somebody tried it, and it didn't work," Beaton said. "It's not worth the risk."
Beaton said he remembers getting a phone call from Collier-based officers to confer about charges in the case. Beaton said he took it to Conservation Commission attorneys, who all agreed that holding together nets amounted to breaking the law.
"I can hold one end of an electrical cord and the other end of an electrical cord and make a spark," Beaton said.
Cannon said he and his buddies saw wildlife officers watching them and used the nets anyway because they didn't think they were doing anything illegal.
Two years ago, Cannon was fined $2,500 and had his fishing license revoked for three months after another illegal net conviction in Cortez, near Bradenton.
He chalked that violation up to getting greedy: "We were young. We learned our lesson," he said.
The Marco Island violation, though, is a different story, Cannon said. The case against him makes a criminal activity out of a common practice of working with more than one legal net at a time and will put fishermen out of business, he said.
"We might as well hang it up," he said. "It's that serious. It's completely out of bounds."
Conservation Commission officers got three bids for the boatloads of fish and sold them to a Goodland wholesaler for more than $3,850. The money is an escrow account awaiting the outcome of the case.