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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sport Fishing in Flordia

Air Date: Week of

It's been eighteen months since Florida voters approved a ban on gill net fishing in state waters, to reduce the catch. But, the transition hasn't been easy. The 1995 referendum was bitter, pitting a disorganized commercial fishing industry against a powerful sports fishing lobby. Still, the ban appears to be working as populations of Spanish Mackerel and Sea Trout are on the rise. But so are violations of the law. As Alexis Muellner reports from Miami, the commercial fishing industry is fighting the new ban in court and at sea.


CURWOOD: It's been 18 months since Florida voters approved a ban on gill net fishing in state waters to reduce the catch. The move followed similar conservation efforts in Texas and California. But in Florida the transition hasn't been easy. The 1995 referendum fight was bitter. It pitted a disorganized commercial fishing industry against a powerful sports fishing lobby. Still, the ban appears to be working. Populations of Spanish mackerel and sea trout are on the rise, but so are violations of the law. As Alexis Muellner reports from Miami, the commercial fishing industry is fighting the new ban in court and at sea.

(Boat engine; a boat cuts through water)

MUELLNER: It's nearly midnight along Florida's Atlantic coast.

(Boat continues)

MUELLNER: State Marine Patrol Officer Jeff Sidor idles in his unmarked Boston whaler near the mouth of the Indian River, about 100 miles north of Miami. He's one of a handful of officers working to enforce the 1995 gill net ban.

(A woman's voice on CB radio: "Jupiter 281." Sidor: "281, go ahead.")

MUELLNER: After a moment he glides toward an area of shallow grassy stretches known as flats. Sheltered from the sea, the flats are popular passageways for Spanish mackerel and pompano. He shuts down his engine and pulls out night vision goggles to scope for gill netters fishing illegally.

(Water slaps against boat)

SIDOR: This is a hot spot for pompano when they're running. There's flats all up in here, so what they'll do is they'll set their net in between 2 flats and let the fish go run into them.

MUELLNER: It's quiet tonight and that's unusual. In the last month, patrol officers have cited 17 fishermen in the area for a range of net ban violations. But Sidor says fishermen are becoming more sophisticated.

SIDOR: They've got the good equipment. I mean, they're all using cell phones. They've got spotters out here. I mean, those boats right there could just be the boats out looking for us. You know, if we're out they don't make their set. So.

MUELLNER: Increasingly, run-ins with fishermen are getting violent.

SIDOR: We've actually been having 2 people on a boat because we've had a lot of threats lately. We've been catching them, and as a matter of fact last time we caught somebody, they threatened to shoot us. So now our lieutenant has paired us up. We're always in twos if we come out.

MUELLNER: Fishermen are getting bolder and more aggressive in part because the gill net ban has effectively shuttered one of the most lucrative commercial fisheries in Florida. The economic cost of the ban is still being tabulated. But a year after the new law went into effect, the state estimated 2,000 fishermen had lost their jobs. It also estimated the ban cost at least $40 million in lost revenue and job training. But gill net fishermen have come under fire for taking more than their fair share. Gill nets, a thin mesh of up to 600 feet long, entangle fish and end up ensnaring many unintended species, including sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins. They've also been blamed for depleting some popular stocks, like Spanish mackerel. Still, commercial gill netters say banning their livelihood goes too far.

(Engines running)

LANE: Big chief, big chief, come on, you ordered the base try on Channel 19.

GEORGE: Go ahead.

LANE: George, are the fish biting today?

GEORGE: Like yesterday...

MUELLNER: It's early morning and the seas are calm in Fort Pierce. The once thriving fishing community along South Central Florida's Atlantic coast. But these days business is slow along the town's industrial wharves.

GEORGE: ... we probably have... porpoise...

LANE: I got you, Skipper. All right, George, catch 'em up, we'll call you a little later.

MUELLNER: Hudgin's Fish Company has been a mainstay here since 1911. Manager Cecil Lane has definitely seen better times.

LANE: The fishermen's boats are basically mothballed. You see a yard full of ex net boats out here. This is one sitting here that isn't being used.

MUELLNER: Lane once employed more than a dozen workers to clean and pack fish caught by the gill net fleet. Now, Lane is just one of 3 workers left. The net ban, he says, has caused a lot of suffering.

LANE: We need to understand that some of the old values, the old traditions, the old customs, need to be given at least some dignity as we change in a transitional mode from one thing to another. When you summarily take a simple fisherman's ability to make a living for himself and his family, you destroy his dignity and his self respect. And that's not the way to do things.

BROWNLEY: The public did understand that there would be people that would be hurt by this. We never said that there wouldn't be people that would be displaced.

MUELLNER: John Brownley is an editor for Saltwater Sportsman magazine, a journal for recreational fishermen. He's also a member of the commission that oversees fishing rules in South Florida. He says the net ban was a drastic but necessary step.

BROWNLEY: We said the people needed to be displaced. Because there was too much damage being done to the fisheries by too few people, and that's what was going on with the net ban. This unsound environmental practice needed to be stopped.

MUELLNER: Needed to be stopped, says Brownley and other sports fishing enthusiasts, because gill netters threatened the health of the recreational fishing stocks. And the $2 billion sports fishermen pump into the state annually.

BROWNLEY: You know, I'm a native Floridian and I see the loss of Florida culture as a tragedy and a sad thing as well. But you can't go on living like it's 1911 forever. You can't -- you have to change with the times. And the fact of the matter is that we're killing too many fish. The net fishermen fought every reform that came down the pike. That has to be said. They fought every single reform that came along. They tried to derail the various mullet plans, the sea trap plans. Everything that came along through the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission, they fought it tooth, fang, and nail.

MUELLNER: But Cecil Lane says voters weren't told that fishermen are already burdened by more than 200 existing regulations. He says it's outrageous that his industry is being fingered alone.

LANE: It seems ludicrous to me that all of a sudden the smallest user group is getting the kick for being the worst environmental predator. And we absolutely are not.

MUELLNER: Dredging, building and tearing up mangroves, not gill netting, are the real culprit, says Lane.

LANE: When you look at the Indian River back in the early days, fishermen were the only people who were raising the danger flags in what we were doing to the environment. When they gutted the Indian River here with their dredges to make the channel deeper to allow the big northern sportsmen to bring their boats to Palm Beach, that destroyed millions of acres of grasslands and clams and oyster beds that were out here. And the spoilage you see out here that came from the refuse of that dredging project have interdicted the flow of the river. You don't have the natural health in the Indian River Lagoon that you had at one time.

(Mechanical sounds)

MUELLNER: It's almost time in the manufacturing workshop of DOA Lewars in Stuart, Florida. Hundreds of partially painted, multicolored soft plastic shrimp lures are in various stages of completion. It's the busiest season yet for this fledgling business reliant on a healthy sports fishery. DOA's owner Mark Nichols says he can understand the plight of commercial gill netters, but he doesn't think the net ban has to totally destroy a way of life.

NICHOLS: Truthfully, when we've been talking about the netting issues and that sort of thing, ultimately a lot of those people were hurt because they love to be out on the water and I sympathize 1,000% with that. I love being out on the water as well. I sympathize with that feeling 100%, and the ones who still love being on the water are going to learn to adapt and make a good living because there's still a lot of living to be made on the water here.

MUELLNER: He knows of former gill netters who are getting captain's licenses and becoming sports fishing guides. Others are working solo, learning to get decent money out of the smaller cast nets still allowed in state waters. They're being encouraged, he says, by rebounding fish stocks.

NICHOLS: I know that I fish certain flats, and I know suddenly those flats have an existence and a stock of fish that seem to roam them and stay on them. Prior to the net ban those fish would not be able to stay on that flat because it would get netted every night. Even if they were a sport fish and even if the netter were sensitive to that sport fish, he can't help but push that fish off its natural environment, its natural feeding area, when they're netting the other fish that they want to target.

MUELLNER: So far, despite rising numbers of fish, the net ban hasn't yet brought a new wave of recreational fishermen to Florida. But Brownley says he's optimistic.

BROWNLEY: The net ban, in my opinion, is the single most important reform in the history of marine fishing legislation in Florida. It's going to help stabilize the stocks so that future generations will have fish to fish for. And that means future generations of commercial fishermen as well as recreational fishermen. It's not going to be a panacea for all problems. It won't solve a great many of the problems that we still have. We have a lot left to do. If we're smart and we choose sustainable methods of harvest, we can sustain a limited commercial fishery where a limited number of people can make a good living.

MUELLNER: But that scenario is by no means a given.

(Boat engines; boat cuts through water)

MUELLNER: Back near the fish spawning grounds along the coastal mangroves, enforcement officers are struggling to control the rising tide of violations. Commercial fishermen can still gill net in Federal waters 3 miles out, and they've also developed creative ways to get around the ban. Some stash the nets on outer mangrove islands. Others have figured out how to funnel fish toward smaller, legal-size nets using long plastic camping tarps. Patrol officer Sidor says the worst offenders are habitual.

SIDOR: Well I know them. I mean, I've been here long enough to know pretty much all the fishermen around here. So, you know, when you arrest them, you know, they don't have much to say. They're just trying to make a living for their families is what they tell you. And most of them, when you catch them, they think it's a cat and mouse game. You caught me this time. And they're decent about it. You know, write me my ticket, do what you have to do, and I'll see you tomorrow. They'll tell you that straight up.

MUELLNER: Meanwhile, commercial gill netters are taking their own chances in court. They've brought a case, now pending in the Florida Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the ban. For Living on Earth, I'm Alexis Muellner in Miami.



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