Collier fisherman helps lead push to remove 2-inch mesh limit on gill nets

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News 
 The 1994 statewide ban made commercial fishing illegal with gill nets larger than  2-inch mesh in state waters.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News The 1994 statewide ban made commercial fishing illegal with gill nets larger than 2-inch mesh in state waters.

— Naples commercial fisherman Bobby Johnson guesses that Florida's 1994 gill net ban made useless some $200,000 worth of fishing equipment he had accumulated over a lifetime on the water.

"It isn't the money," Johnson said. "It changed your whole life."

Two decades later, the ban still sticks in the craws of net fishers. They have been fighting it in courtrooms and at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meetings around the state ever since voters overwhelming approved the constitutional amendment that banned the nets.

Finding no success there, fishermen are now pushing a new grassroots effort to lift a net mesh size restriction, and Collier County is on its leading edge.

The Conservation Commission adopted a 2-inch mesh size limit to enact the constitutional amendment, which didn't cite any mesh size limit.

Fishermen say a 2-inch mesh gills too many juvenile fish that would be able to escape a larger mesh. The smaller mesh leads to overfishing that the net ban was supposed to guard against, they say, but backers of the net ban say the move to repeal the mesh-size limit amounts to a repeal of the net ban.

Collier and Wakulla County, the Panhandle county that is home base for the mesh size fight, were the first two counties last week to have its county commissions vote to back the repeal of a 2-inch net mesh size rule.

Organizers say they plan to get every Florida county to back the mesh size repeal, Wakulla Fishermen Association President Keith Ward said.

"It's been a long, drawn-out fight," said Ward, who also leads Fishing for Freedom, the group fighting the mesh size limit. "We haven't given up yet, and we're not going to."

More than a dozen commercial fishermen from as far away as Pasco County attended last week's Collier County Commission meeting.

They brought soft drawls and homemade props — a wooden replica of a juvenile fish and a patch of 2-inch mesh net stretched across PVC pipes — to illustrate how the nets entangle fish that are too small to take to market.

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News 
 Local commercial fisherman Bobby Johnson talks with other fishermen from as far away as Newport Ritchie after a County Commission meeting heard their plea to fight a 1994 ban on gill nets in state waters at the Collier County Government Complex on Tuesday afternoon.

Photo by JASON EASTERLY

Jason Easterly/Special to the Daily News Local commercial fisherman Bobby Johnson talks with other fishermen from as far away as Newport Ritchie after a County Commission meeting heard their plea to fight a 1994 ban on gill nets in state waters at the Collier County Government Complex on Tuesday afternoon.

Everglades City fisherman Grady Johnson said the only way to get the fish out of the net is to twist off their heads and throw them into the water dead.

"They're crab food," Johnson said.

Backers of the net ban say the bycatch doesn't pose a biological threat to fish stocks, which have improved since the net ban went into effect.

"It's just not a problem," said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, a recreational fishing lobbying group.

Courts have drawn the line between legal nets and illegal gill nets at the 2-inch mesh size. Repealing the rule and allowing larger mesh sizes would violate voters' intent, Forsgren said.

"You can't build a gill net and then call it something else," Forsgren said.

Fishermen say their campaign is within the bounds of the constitutional amendment. They still would have to comply with the 500-square-foot net size voters approved in 1994.

"We're asking for what the voters gave us," Grady Johnson said.

Forsgren said commercial fishermen want the larger mesh sizes so they can catch more spawning adult mullet that bounce off the smaller mesh nets. Mullet roe is a prized delicacy in Asia.

After the net ban, mullet fishermen found they could no longer catch enough marketable fish to be able to make a living doing what generations had done before.

After the net ban, mullet fishermen found they could no longer catch enough marketable fish to be able to make a living doing what generations had done before.

Many of them became crabbers; some ditched fishing altogether and went into a construction industry that was booming at the time. The housing market collapse hit them hard.

Bringing back the mullet fishery will be good, not just for fishermen, but for the local economy too, said Christina Johnson, a Fishing for Freedom representative in Everglades City.

"This will be a huge win," she said.

For Bobby Johnson, 62, an end to the mesh size limits would insert common sense into an issue that has been overtaken by politics.

Johnson, who has been fishing since he was a boy on Estero Bay, said the Conservation Commission should listen to the people who know their business.

"My degree is better than any college degree," he said.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features