Politics Vs. Biology
Fishing For Freedom
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Full Moon Summer Solstice Mullet Madness

By Van Lewis

Recently, I started my brilliant new career as a commercial mullet fisherman. I’ve added it to clam farming as a way to stay in trouble.

I’ve always been around mullet fishing, from when I was a tiny child and Ronald Fred’s uncle, Sweet Crum, used to show up at our back door at the beach house frequent mornings around six in his Ford pick-’em-up truck and honk his horn, waking up our whole household and many of our neighbors. We didn’t wring his neck, though, because we knew from experience that he was probably bearing still-kicking mullet, maybe a fresh blue or two, a spec, a Spanish, or a pompano he had saved especially for my mother and father, who loved ‘em. He cleaned ‘em for us, too, in the old crab house back of Itldo. What service! Always barefooted, usually with a smile. Do I actually remember when his mullet went from a nickel to a dime a pound? I think I worried that we wouldn’t be able to eat.

I know I do have very vivid memories now, over half-a-century later, of those mullet still bouncing around in his galvanized washtub in the back of that old rusty Ford, too fresh to need any ice. They made me forget my question about why he thought it was ok to wake us up with that loud truck horn so early on those still, quiet, peaceful summer mornings of my childhood. The man was a fisherman – only man I knew who could drive into anyone’s back yard and lay hard on that loud ol’ horn and not get tossed out on his ear or shot.

Those were the days!

I also got to mullet-fish some with my father, who, in addition to the cast nets he made, somehow came by a small beach seine (we found it last year here under some pine straw), probably of about 500 square feet (long before the days of the Net Limiting Amendment and the FWC’s subsequent insane “two-inch stretched mesh” rule), with which, in his retirement years, he used to keep our beach community entertained and supplied with fresh mullet all in the same blow.

In addition, I started and ran my own seafood market in Tallahassee from 1975 to 1990, so I got to haul Tallahassee money – my “silver hook” – to Wakulla and Franklin counties and deal with fish houses, and hook-and-line and net fishers as well. Fresh local mullet from Skipper Bay and Dog and St. George islands were always right at the top on my list of highly desirable if not essential catches.

But I never got to be a real commercial net fisherman. Not until now, anyway. I’ve “retired”, so now I can REALLY go to work!

A few nights ago, on June 21 – the summer solstice and full moon, too; how often does that happen on the same night? – after the sun went down and the moon came up, working with a deep low tide, my accomplice and I went mullet fishing.

The night before, I had spotted a few mullet fooling around right up against the shoreline, and thought they might be back in force the next night to celebrate the full moon and the summer solstice.

Boy, were they! Mullet madness!

We went with my 500 square foot, one-square-inch mesh, “by-catch” net, a gross obscenity forced on Florida net fishers by ignorant, crazy people in Tallahassee and elsewhere. We knew better, but thought, what the heck, maybe we’d give their stupid, crazy net a try.

We learned our lesson that night.

The breeze was light out of the north, so the near-shore water was flat calm, but 20 yards out the rippling began and the moonlight danced off the wavelets and waves farther off shore. The pleasant temperature (sure beats roe fishing in December for a skinny ol’ guy like me!), the moonlight dancing, the mullet occasionally rippling the calm waters up against the mudflats, all combined to make it one of the most memorable and beautiful nights I’ve lived in a long, long time.

There are compensations for being a fisherman that far exceed and never get registered in a bank account. I’m rich! But my banker doesn’t know it.

Bill (we’ll call him) stayed on the easterly mud flats at the edge of the water tending his end of the net and I eased out into the water with a tire inner tube floating my nutty little net in a shrimp basket, which I use for clam work. I was surprised by how little attention the mullet paid to my slow, gentle arc out into the water and over and back to the westward water’s edge. The bright moonlight helped to dim the water’s phosphorescent luminescence. I must have been partly hidden from the mullet by the moon light. Hiding in the light!

Then we started gently pulling on the lead and float lines.

Suddenly, the water inside the net exploded!

Mullet were running and jumping everywhere! They almost pulled us and the net out to sea! There must have been a thousand pounds of fish in that little semi-circle! (Every good fish story has to have at least a thousand pounds of fish in it, somewhere!)

Johnny (we’ll call him) and I thought we were set for the next afternoon’s organic farmers market in Tallahassee. We could already see the smiling, happy faces of the many people to whom we had promised just-caught, June mullet, fresh from the Gulf. I thought I was Sweet Crum, reincarnated!

Everybody needs good nutrition. It doesn’t matter what their politics are, or their sex or their religion or their nationality or their bank account or anything else that makes them (thank God) different from me and you. I think that’s one of the reasons I have loved the seafood business so much during my short – I’m 62 – and happy life: We all have to eat.

We all have to eat essential (we die without ‘em, folks!) vitamins, and proteins with their essential (we die without them, too!) amino acids, and essential (we’re DONE for without ‘em!) fatty acids, and essential (we’re GONNERS without ‘em!) minerals and trace elements. We HAVE TO EAT such esoteric things as CHROMIUM! YES! The very same metal that makes your car bumper so shiny! In the body, it works as an essential (we DIE without it, DEAD!) co-factor with insulin to control blood sugar levels, among many other essential life functions. Chromium shortages can produce diabetes symptoms. Ultimately, without enough chromium in our bodies, we are DEAD MEAT! WORM FOOD! SHARK BAIT!

We all need good food, and fresh mullet is nothing but! It’s packed with all those essential nutrients and more, AND IN THE RIGHT PROPORTIONS! We have to not only eat all these things. We have to eat them in correct proportions. Too MUCH chromium (copper, zinc, selenium, etc) can kill you just as dead as too little, and quicker.

One of the many important miracles of a diet rich in natural foods is that it’s hard to get too much, or too little, of any of these essential ingredients; essential to a healthy life, to life itself. Mother Nature is a balance of qualities and quantities. Let her set the table, folks. She knows what she’s doing. She’s a wise old woman. When will we ever learn?

Was I telling you a fish story? Back to the moonlit water!

Mullet were jumping over the net, mullet were picking up the lead line and going under, mullet were laughing at us and the FWC’s poor little excuse for a fish net.

When we got it to shore we found in it two legal-sized mullet that apparently had decided to have pity on Harry (we’ll call him) and me and volunteered to feed us, and an unmentionable number of undersized, illegal, baby mullet, unnecessarily gilled in the net and injured beyond saving, all because the insanely mandated one-square-inch mesh is too small. With a larger mesh the babies would have swum right through the net, totally unharmed. Now, though, they lay dead on the mud flats, never to produce any babies of their own.

According to the FWC, we can’t sell these undersized fish their crazy rule makes us kill, totally unnecessarily. They say we can’t eat them, or feed them to pregnant women or hungry children, or donate them to a food bank. They say we can’t even mix them with seaweed and make compost and vegetables with them. No, nothing reasonable like that. They say we have to feed them to the crabs.

As I understand it, the FWC says that the ONLY thing we can legally do with these baby and juvenile fish, so unnecessarily gilled and killed, is throw them back into the sea. They say we not only CAN, legally, but HAVE to, waste them.

That is an outright lie. The FWC is lying. It is not only illegal in Florida to unnecessarily kill and waste marine fish, it is unconstitutional to do so. It’s a flagrant violation of the constitution of the State of Florida.

Mary Jo (we’ll call him) and I violated not only our own consciences that beautiful, peaceful June night. We violated the Florida constitution. Even more importantly, we violated the fish. The holy mullet.

It was a very sad and truly a pathetic sight. I couldn’t help but think, looking at the dead baby fish shining in the moonlight on the mud flats that balmy night, of the low-birth-weight human babies of the poor, some of them with nutrient-deficiency-induced birth defects, soon to be born in Gadsden and other counties, whose entire lives will be so severely negatively impacted by the lack of the very same essential nutrients that were at the moment in the bodies of these dead baby fish. We have our own third world right here in Florida, with babies literally dying for lack of high-quality, affordable, nutritious food; essentials of healthy life, of life itself. And the FWC is either oblivious to it all or doesn’t give a damn.

I will remember this night for a long, long time, not only for it’s beauty, but also for its hideous criminality.

I was properly licensed. I was fishing with the net the FWC tells me I have to fish with (my big mistake), I was engaged in lawful, potentially highly beneficial work, and I UNINTENTIONALLY committed criminal acts because and only because I followed the FWC’s directions; acts I should have been arrested for on the spot.

Where is the FWC when the mullet really need them?

I guess the FWC and their rulers want us damned if we do and damned if we don’t; the old double bind; “Catch-22”. They just want us off the water altogether. They want all the fish for the rich folks. Let the poor eat lethal white bread. Babies, piscean or human, don’t have money, don’t vote, and therefore don’t count.

The fault was not mine alone, although I will be very careful when and where I put that insane net in the water if I ever do it again. The primary fault is the crazy people’s in the FWC, and ultimately the fault is the Florida legislature’s, the courts’, the governor’s, the media’s, and the people’s, because we have all put up with this criminal insanity in our government since 1997, when the inseine net rule was first approved by the governor and cabinet.

Some of us were in the audience back in 1997 when Governor Chiles, Bill Nelson (now Florida’s senior U.S. Senator), and the rest of the cabinet first approved the FWC’s craziest rule. I was there wearing a one-square-inch mesh net full of gilled, dead baby mullet, hoping the dead babies could speak loudly enough for themselves, since Chiles wouldn’t let me or any of the rest of us speak for them. The dead babies, though, were speaking to deaf ears, closed minds, hard hearts – dead brains. They were speaking against money. Money – the Bible says the love of it is the root of all evil – won, that day.

We have pure insanity enshrined now in the one-square-inch rule which Chiles, et. al. forced on us, but we forced on ourselves an even more serious insanity, which we enshrined in the Constitution itself. I’m not talking about the Marine Net Limiting Amendment. As soon as the “gill and entangling net” prohibition in it gets thrown out because “gill nets” and “entangling nets” aren’t defined in it – despite deceptive appearances to the contrary – what’s left of the amendment will function fine to help us manage sustainable net fisheries in Florida.

The real insanity is that we approved putting the FWC in the constitution and thereby making it appear to be a co-equal branch of government with the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. Some of the crazy people in the FWC now think nobody else in government, in the whole world, can tell them what to do. They think their own power, coming directly to them from the constitution itself, is unchecked, that they can make, interpret, and enforce any rule they want to, no matter HOW crazy it is, all on their own, without any oversight from anybody. To them, the unnecessary suffering and death they cause is unimportant – “irrelevant”. No more checks and balances for the FWC! They think they can even violate citizens’ fundamental American and even inalienable human rights, for their own political purposes, and get away with it unscathed.

So far it looks like they are mostly right.

I didn’t think the people at the FWC could go any crazier than they have been ever since 1997, but I was wrong. Today is June 30, 2005. Tomorrow the FWC’s one-square-inch rule, which until now only applied to seines, gets extended to apply to all fish nets in the state except cast nets.

I don’t care any more what the FWC says. I’m going to fish from now on with nets currently permitted to me by the Florida constitution and – respecting its rightful prohibition against unnecessary killing and waste – intelligently designed to let those baby fish swim safely through.

Today I went to Tallahassee and bought my 2005-2006 commercial fishing license and I got my salt water products card with my restricted species endorsement on it and I’m going to fix my daddy’s old beach seine with it’s sane mesh size and I’m going mullet fishing, following him and a very long line of sane Florida fishermen going back at least 10,000 years, using nets that let the babies pass through.

I guess that makes me a criminal in the FWC’s eyes. In mine, they are the criminals.

If the FWC doesn’t like it they can come and arrest me for it. Thoreau says jail’s the only place for an honest man, anyway. I’d consider it an honor to go to jail for violating their insanity, for being a good fisherman and a good environmentalist and protecting the next generation of mullet from the very people who are charged with the legal responsibility for protecting them from me, and who instead have become their chief executioners.

I may go to jail, but I won’t violate the Florida constitution’s prohibition against unnecessarily killing, over fishing and wasting Florida’s marine resources again; not if I can help it. I love my home way too much to let anybody make me desecrate it again in such an ugly, unconscionable, pitifully stupid way.

And on such a pretty night, too. I’m ashamed of myself. I’m ashamed of all of us in Florida for allowing this insanity to go on for eight long years now. It’s time to bring the FWC’s madness to an end, even if it takes nonviolent civil disobedience to do it.

I’m ready.

Yeah, right. Now I’M the one who’s lying.

I’m not ready to be arrested, to be fined, to lose my commercial fishing license now that I finally have it, to lose my clam lease. I’m not ready to inflict that kind of suffering on myself or my family, willingly. My wife doesn’t need me in trouble with the law. My children don’t. I don’t need to be spending my little remaining time or money that way. I have family responsibilities out here in the real world. I don’t want to go to jail.

So stay away, FWC. Let me catch a few mullet in peace. All I’m trying to do is prevent a few unnecessary birth defects, a few unnecessary nutritional deficiencies, a few unnecessary degenerative diseases. It’s a calling from my creator. Leave me alone. I’m not hurting anybody. Go spend your seemingly inexhaustible law enforcement money on real criminals. I’m not a danger to anyone. With my tiny fishing nets, if I make the mesh big enough to let the babies through, I’m not even a significant danger to the plentiful, jumping mullet. I’m just another local lunatic, out here in the moonlight with the moonlit summer mullet, praising the good Lord that they’re still here and I’m still here with ‘em, lovin’ ’em so much I could just EAT ‘em, for just a little longer.

Let the babies live!

Van Lewis
Mullet fisherman

P.S. – What did we do with the dead baby mullet? We ate ‘em all, every last one. We may have killed ‘em, but at least we didn’t waste ‘em. We cut our crimes against the fish and the constitution in half. Come arrest me if you dare, FWC. I’ll admit to your “crime” in court. I want the Supreme Court of Florida to exonerate me and all the rest of the mullet fishers whose rights and lives you have so grossly trampled on for so many years. There has to be a way to stop your unnecessary madness.

I think the Florida Supreme Court can do it. Maybe the legislature can. (Forget the spineless, lame-duck governor.) If none of them can, then I guess it’ll just have to be we voters, again, who opened the door to this insanity in the first place by putting the FWC in the constitution. We’ll have to put the FWC back in its place, as a normal state agency with all the rest of ‘em instead of a constitutional authority all its own, subject, finally, to the normal limitations and checks and balances on government power provided by our tripartite, not quadripartite, constitution.

Back in your cage of constitutional government, you loony villains!

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