Q: Why is spearfishing in Florida prohibited only in Collier County and the Keys?
— D.A., Naples
A: You can thank or blame Collier County voters nearly 60 years ago for approving the spearfishing ban, which prohibits spearing fish in the county, as well as within state waters off Collier's shores — nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
The referendum was on the November 1956 ballot after the County Commission in 1955 approved "an act to prohibit spear fishing in all of the waters of Collier County," immediately effective upon voter approval at the next general election.
"It shall be unlawful to take or attempt to take fish in any and all waters of Collier County, Florida, by means of a spear, gig, or similar device. Any person violating the provisions of this act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction subject to the penalty provided by law," according to sections 1 and 2 of the law, chapter 30665.
Even though a Florida law, effective Oct. 1, 1973, eventually made it legal to spearfish in nearly all salt waters in the state, Collier County's stricter regulations remained on the books, and still are enforced today.
Cpl. Bob Marvin, with the Collier County Sheriff's Office Marine Bureau, said violators will receive a citation to appear in court. Fines vary depending on the type, size and number of fish speared.
State fines can be steep for the taking of undersized or prohibited fish. Divers wishing to avoid a fine for undersized catch are advised to keep in mind that objects underwater usually appear larger than actual size.
Spearfishermen are bound by the same restraints as other saltwater fishermen, including fish length, types of species and bag limits. Even in areas of Florida where spearfishing is permitted, many fish are still on a statewide no-take list.
Although it is against the law to take goliath grouper by any means anywhere off Florida, it also is illegal to spear many kinds of fish, including billfish, sharks, snook, redfish, permit, pompano, tarpon, bonefish, some rays and crabs, ornamental fish and many other species. Fishing regulations are constantly changing, so before making the trip, make sure you go to the FWC website to brush up on the latest.
Florida fishers also may not use spearing equipment or even have possession of it within 100 yards of public beaches, fishing piers or bridges where public fishing is allowed. Spearing and the possession of spears and spearguns also is not permitted in most state parks, and Everglades National Park, and one may not have possession of spearing equipment in freshwater recreational areas or man-made canals.
Spearfishing is defined as the taking of a saltwater fish by use of a spear, gig or lance, whether the angler is above the water or below, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. As with any recreational fishing, most spearfishers also need a valid Florida saltwater fishing license and must display a diver down flag, if diving or snorkeling.
Of course, Collier's stricter law was enacted before the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was created in 1999, and even predates both the state's former Marine Fisheries Commission and Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. The law addressed the abundant spearing of snook off Collier beaches, wrecks and fish-spawning mangroves in the 1950s, Cpl. Marvin said.
"That's why they put that in there, to stop that," he said.
Why hasn't the grandfathered regulation been repealed?
"We have not been requested to remove the rule," said Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman for FWC.
Collier-specific laws enacted even earlier — in 1939 and 1949 — cracked down on nets and seining in the county, and a 1951 law made it illegal to spear fish in saltwater by using any artificial light. Click here for a link to the list of FWC's special acts of local application.
The validity regarding these special acts has caused some confusion over the years. In 1983, the Florida Legislature actually did repeal the Collier spearfishing laws, but the regulations were carried forward as administrative rules of the newly created Marine Fisheries Commission, and are still in effect under the FWC.
Citizens are understandably confused by local fishing and diving regulations, said Kevin Sweeney, owner of SCUBAdventures, which sells a lot of spearguns — prominently displayed on a wall of his Naples store. Sweeney notifies spearfishers about Collier's ban and provides them with a sheet of rules.
"We educate everybody," he said. "Most of the people that come in have a boat and go offshore for clearer water. We do educate people to keep them out of jail."
Because nearshore diving is limited anyway because of low visibility, Sweeney said he is puzzled by Collier's special exemption for spearfishing.
"Why they have it, I don't know," he said.
Capt. Mark Garcy, the owner of Naples Marina and Excursions off the Cocohatchee River in North Naples, said the local ban hurts everybody.
"What's the point? It hurts our economy. It hurts business. It's definitely not a beneficial thing," he said.
Garcy, one of the founders of the Lee & Collier Spearfishing Club, said good diving conditions exist for spearfishing off Wiggins Pass. He said he gets asked all the time about local spearfishing.
"I just had a call today from people who want to go tomorrow," he said Sunday. "Why should they not be able to fish in fishable waters?"
In addition to Collier County, spearfishing is prohibited within the boundaries of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off Key Largo and the area of Monroe County known as the Upper Keys, the string of islands from the Miami-Dade County line south through Long Key. Spearfishing regulations in the Keys are even more convoluted to navigate, especially with additional federal restrictions.
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"In the Know" is published Mondays and Wednesdays in the Naples Daily News. Find a complete archive of "In the Know" columns at naplesnews.com/intheknow.