A state lawmaker is weighing in on the fight between mullet fishermen and the state agency that regulates them.
State Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, ripped the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) last week in response to the agency’s decision to appeal a circuit court judge’s ruling that lifts restrictions on mullet fishermen’s nets.
“I’m disappointed to see that the state is going to appeal the process. They should be finding a way to work with the fishermen rather than to continue on with more litigation and wasting taxpayer money,” he said.
Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled Oct. 22 in Leon County that FWC regulations on net mesh size — how large the holes are — must be stopped. The FWC currently requires no larger than a two-inch mesh, but fishermen say that’s too small to let undersized fish out of the net, which die and, in turn, reduce future populations.
And Beshears wholeheartedly agrees with that.
“The fishermen never disagreed with the size of the net; they only disagreed with the size of the mesh,” Beshears said. “It’s killing everything out there.”
But Beshears also said he was “excited” about the ruling, calling it a “great thing for the fishermen.
“These commercial fishermen have had their day in court over and over again each time with slaps in the face,” he said, in a written release. “Judge Fulford’s ruling has offered the best encouragement yet to continue this fight, and continue we will.”
The court case stems from the state constitutional “net ban” amendment Florida voters approved in 1994. It opened the door for restrictions on several net types. Commercial mullet fishermen have fought the FWC rules that resulted from it for years.
Three licensed commercial fishermen filed the case, including a bait-and-tackle shop owner in Wakulla County. Their lawyer, Ron Mowrey, said the FWC rules discriminate against mullet fishermen because larger mesh sizes can be used when going after other fish. He said this factored into the judge’s ruling.
Mowrey also said the state filed an appeal within an hour of the ruling. “They’re chomping at the bit to spend taxpayers’ money,” he said.
“We are appealing because we don’t think it is valid,” Amanda Nalley, FWC spokeswoman, told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Ronald Fred Crum, who owns the bait-and-tackle shop, has long fought the amendment. He said there are mullet fishermen from Panama City to Tampa, offering a strong market for the fish, which is eaten in the region. He said he doesn’t want to repeal the amendment, only “correct the rules” enforced by FWC. He said the amendment does not include specific mesh sizes.
“We want the mesh to not be restricted to anything,” Crum said.
He said commercial fishermen are professional enough to use a proper mesh size and catch the fish they’re targeting and release the rest “alive and unharmed.”
“If I can correct this problem and stop the unnecessary killing and waste, I think I can enhance sport fishing by 30 percent in 12 months,” Crum said.
Meanwhile, the judge’s ruling offers unusual candor on an obviously controversial and difficult case and says a “legal absurdity” has been created through constitutional amendments and FWC rules related to this issue.
“… the application of these laws by FWC appears to be fundamentally unfair and this Court, as a court of equity, feels compelled to at least attempt to abate the unfairness,” the ruling states.
The ruling says the case was reviewed for a year — “weighed and re-weighed” — in an attempt to find a clear answer.
“Unfortunately, the more the matter is considered, the more unclear it becomes. An absolute mess has been created,” the ruling states.
“As legislators, we are challenged with listening to opposing factors and basing decisions on fairness and what is good for everyone,” wrote Beshears. “We have to listen to our constituency or else we fail to render decisions that provide opportunities to all citizens.
“(The fishermen) are not attempting to supersede the amendment nor are their attempts to undo the net ban. They are just asking for a larger mesh size so they can fish for mullet and undersized fish will not be entangled and die,” he wrote. “They want to fish, to work, to make a living just like all of us, just like everyone at FWC.”