May 16, 2011
Everywhere I looked, commercial netters continued to haul in hundreds of pounds of Spanish mackerel while recreational hook-and-line fishers came up with one at a time, if that. In fact, there was not a bent rod in sight among the predominately commercial fleet.
Since an amendment to the Florida Constitution banned gill nets from state waters in the mid '90s, you'd think Spanish mackerel would get more of a break these days. Not necessarily.
Gill nets have resurfaced through a "net language" loophole (see sidebar), particularly in the commercial Spanish mackerel fishery. And while these new-line gill nets vaguely resemble cast nets and they're deployed somewhat like a cast net, that's where similarities end. Cast gillnets work on the same principles as their outlawed counterparts, by entangling or gilling fish. They are just smaller versions of the indiscriminate killing-machine nets that Florida residents resoundingly voted to remove from state waters a decade ago.
Nowhere are these gill nets more visible than off Southeast Florida in a nearshore mackerel haven known as Peck's Lake. During winter, recovering stocks of Spanish macks take up residence in this "reef hole" or depression that is surrounded by live reef and coral.
Following the net ban, recreational anglers kept close tabs on this valuable resource that, at one time, was almost decimated to profit a few commercials. For several years, family anglers enjoyed catching this rebuilding resource, but the winter of 2003-2004 saw a major change. No more were treasured macks safe from the ravages of gill nets. Net-caught fish began piling up at area docks and fish houses.
With commercial boats numbering in the dozens hammering these Spanish stocks day after day during winter when schools stack up in Peck's Lake, it's considered only a matter of time before this fish population is once again devastated. Particularly in light of the virtually unlimited commercial hauls.
Collateral damages attributed to cast gillnets also appear to be escalating.
Reports from recreational divers and lobster hunters indicate that abandoned nets-hopelessly snagged on coral and reef growth-litter the ocean floor of Peck's Lake.
A Stuart diver (who required anonymity) was the first to bring the dilemma of lost-on-the-bottom gill nets to our attention. He discovered several abandoned nets in December while scouring the rocky bottom for spiny lobsters.
"I was about 25 feet down when I came across two handlines to nets trailing in the current," he began. "Both led to torn-up gill nets that measured roughly 14 by 16 feet while hung on the bottom. The first still had three barely alive fish tangled deep in its mesh along with a larger fish carcass that I couldn't identify."
The second net bespoke a deeper tragedy. In it, the diver out for some family bugging discovered the shell and carcass of a lobster he guesstimated at seven or eight pounds, a few dead porgies and reef fish and a "white hunk of decayed flesh that had to be at least a 10- or 15-pound blob."
On any day from roughly late October through March, commercial cast-netters converge on Peck's Lake in unbelievable numbers. Head out on a calm sea and you'll quickly count 50 (sometimes the fleet numbers twice that) "working" mackerel boats manned by up to four netters aboard each. When the boat operator marks a school of Spanish macks below, nets go over in unison.
Nets are allowed to sink to the bottom (schools often stay tight to structure below) and then retrieved. On one day I was there plugging for a few Spanish, some of the netters tied nets laden with fish to the gunnel then gunned it to stay on top of the mark and cast another net or two. After all, their catch is basically unlimited. Compare that to the 15-fish recreational limit.
Obviously, losing a net or two or three is just a business expense in this enterprise. But, when you multiply those losses by maybe 10 or 20 per day depending on the commercial fleet's size, the collateral damages can be staggering. As witnessed by another pair of buggers, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, in early January:
"We began to look for bugs in 20 feet of water at Peck's Lake," one of the Port Salerno divers recounted. "The scene was eerie. Everywhere we looked, leadlines from cast gill nets covered the reef. There were literally hundreds of them. We couldn't dive anywhere without finding them." Unfortunately, running into abandoned net remains at Peck's Lake is nothing new to this pair, but the sobering scale of the problem is. "This is the most lost gill nets that we've seen in 20 years and that covers the years when roller boats used to wipe this place out."
Macabre carnage describes the scene these veteran divers found waiting below on Peck Lake reefs. "Dead fish were in all the nets," one diver related. "We identified lobster, crabs, Spanish mackerel, porgies and triggerfish in the nets. Some looked like they must have been longtime killing machines that kept entangling more victims as they came to feed on dead fish hung in the nets." These two divers and others have been so disturbed by the nets they found, they recorded the GPS coordinates for future reference. Several have also retrieved nets hung on the bottom, but they attest it is very dangerous. This is a job best left to professionals as it would be easy to get hung in some netting without much chance of escape.
The question every diver who reported the abandoned nets littering the bottom asked was, "How can these nets be legal? Didn't we ban gill nets in Florida?"
Equally puzzling is that the state even allows commercial fishing at Peck's Lake since fertile mackerel waters are located within the boundaries of the St. Lucie Inlet & Sea Branch Preserve.
Preserve manager John Griner also seems baffled by commercial enterprises being allowed to operate within Preserve boundaries. "We have some serious issues that need to be addressed with these nets, especially if they're damaging the bottom. St. Lucie Inlet & Sea Branch Preserve was set up to protect the reef."
Griner said his hands were tied as far as prohibiting cast gill-netting within Preserve confines. "Basically we're incorporated in the same statutes that govern John Pennekamp Park in the Keys. Commercial fishing is allowed within certain designated portions of Pennekamp. Authorities have relayed to me that as long as cast gill-netters use legal means there is nothing Preserve staffers can do. Pennekamp covers a much larger area. Using the same laws to protect this small stretch of reef does not seem relevant. These reefs need more protection, even if it means additional legislation."
Legislation outlawing cast gill nets could effectively halt the current destruction of this life-supporting reef. Preserve boundaries extend 1 1/4 miles east from the Preserve's Jupiter Island shoreline, which covers all substantial nearshore reef and hard bottom.
And lest we forget the killing potential of a gill net gone awry, remember the "ghost" gill net found snagged on Stuart's Six Mile Reef recently. Coast Guardsmen charged with removing the net described the net clogged with sharks, finfish and at least one sea turtle, "as very much a working net" in that it continued to indiscriminately kill marine life until removal.
Many sportsmen say that it's time to stop this eco-tragedy. It's difficult to fathom how these cast gill nets could be considered legal. Mesh size conforms to gill nets of old. And so does the damaging overkill.