Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with its passing marks the beginning of the most anticipated season of the year, Mullet Season. The fall run of the spawning roe-filled lowly little mullet is what put the small village of Cortez on the map as the largest mullet fishery in Florida.
Early fishermen used both seine nets and gill nets, depending on the fishing method used. Seine nets with their fine mesh were used along the shore acting like a moving wall through the water. The net would be run from the shoreline out to the deeper water then back to shore in a wide arc. The net was then hauled to shore where fishermen would select what they wanted to keep and release alive any unwanted or undersized fish.
Gill nets had different mesh sizes, and would target specific sized fish. Larger fish would bump into the net and turn around, while smaller fish swam right through. The targeted sized fish would become entangled by the gills and hauled in. The fatter female red roe mullet are the prized catch and also brought the most money at the dock, and gill nets allowed the smaller male white roe mullet swim right through. Even today, white roe mullet only fetch about 20 cents a pound and are mostly used for crab bait. For almost 200 years the gill net was the favored gear for fishermen, allowing them to target red roe and reducing the amount of unwanted and undersized bycatch and preserving stocks for future generations of mullet. The commercial fishing families of Cortez rely heavily on the annual mullet harvest, deriving almost half their annual income from the fall run.
That annual bonanza at the end of the year has become increasingly difficult in the past 20 some years since Article X Section 16, or the “Net Ban” was passed in a Constitutional Amendment that banned the use of entanglement nets in the inshore and near shore waters of Florida. Sport fishing interests spearheaded the campaign, largely funded by the FCA, now called the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, or the CCA for short. With no scientific data to support their claims and sketchy propaganda campaigns often showing sea turtles and porpoise trapped in the drift nets of Taiwanese fishing vessels, the voters of Florida passed the amendment by a 70% margin. The fishing families of Florida were devastated by the ruling, resorting to hand thrown cast nets as the only option to harvest their largest crop of the year.
The fight to overturn the net ban has been an ongoing struggle for a handful of tenacious fishermen across the state. Going head to head with such powerful lobbyist groups such as the CCA has been an uphill battle, but it has not been without it’s small victories along the way. Fishing For Freedom of Manatee, Wakulla and Franklin Counties have been challenging the net ban in the higher courts of Florida and have actually had it overturned not once but twice, only to have the CCA come in and successfully challenge the rulings. The scientific studies that have been done over the past 20 years have placed their favor on the side of the fishermen, showing declining stocks because of bycatch and the inevitable culling of undersized male white roe. The net ban isn’t the only political arena the fishermen have been fighting for. For decades now, commercial fishing organizations have been fighting for a voice on the FWC Rules Committee, which has not a single representative from the commercial fishing industry.
With the opening of the 2017 mullet season, citizens of Florida can help the fishing families of Cortez and across Florida by educating themselves on the net ban and by signing the petition to put the Net Ban up for review by the Constitutional Revision Committee in Tallahassee. Fishing for Freedom of Manatee County collected over 400 signatures at this years’ Cortez Stone Crab Festival. To sign the petition, contact Mark Coarsey at firstname.lastname@example.org Another way you can help is to go to the CRC website and leave a comment about your desire to have the Net Ban considered for revision. This is a bit of a process but goes a long way toward helping the fishermen of Florida. Go to FLCRC.gov and click on the “About the CRC” tab then click on “Get Involved”. Under that tab is a “Submit Comment” section where you can leave a brief comment of your support.
Of course, the best way to support the fishermen of Florida is by only eating fresh, wild-caught Florida Seafood, including the abundant and tasty mullet. If you have never tried it, perhaps it’s time you did!
photo credits- Top: Rose Lipke, middle: Deposit Photos, bottom: Mary Campbell