Toledo, Ohio – A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of
Ohio’s amended Senate Bill 77, which went into effect Oct. 10 and
aims to more tightly monitor the activities of the state’s Lake
Erie commercial fishermen, has been filed in U.S. District Court in
The suit was filed by a new commercial group, Great Lakes
Commercial Fishermen, LLC, which was founded by veteran commercial
netter Frank Reynolds of Oregon.
Reynolds is a long-time nemesis of the DNR and its Division of
Wildlife and its fishing management practices. Over the years, he
has tapped sympathetic lawmakers and the courts in attempts to make
his case that commercial netters are being treated unfairly.
“ODNR has proposed various restrictions against commercial
fishermen with the purpose of limiting and/or eliminating the
industry,” charged Anthony Calamunci, attorney for GLCF. “These
regulations, if allowed, will have a significant effect on society
with higher costs for industry workers as well as consumers.”
The attorney said that GLCF wants the court to scrutinize Senate
Bill 77 because it limits or constitutes a “taking” of property
belonging to commercial fishermen.
“Our mission here is to be sure the court recognizes commercial
fishermen’s property rights in their licenses,” Calamunci said.
The challenge revolves around enforcement of restrictions and
requirements on netters that will affect the next fishing season,
as a result of Senate Bill 77. The bill was a response to
widespread illegal yellow perch catches that came to light on the
heels of a two-year investigation ending in 2005. It was the
largest such investigation in DNR history and resulted in 23 felony
counts against commercial fishermen and wholesale fish sellers in
Port Clinton, Sandusky, Vermilion and Cleveland. Most of the
accused were found by a Cuyahoga County grand jury to be connected
to long-term illegal marketing of yellow perch, one of Lake Erie’s
most valued fish.
A common problem uncovered in the cases was a pattern of
underreporting catches, in effect falsifying reports to skirt
around consensus quotas set by the 53-year-old Great Lakes Fishery
Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich. Representatives from Ohio, Michigan,
Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario sit on the GLFC’s quota-setting
Lake Erie Committee.
The DNR officially declined comments on the suit, according to
spokesman Cristi Wilt, who said it was against policy to comment on
pending court action.
But state wildlife Chief Dave Graham, at a recent meeting of the
rules-making Ohio Wildlife Council, said that while the state takes
the suit seriously he does not think it has any validity.
He said that Reynolds’ group does not represent the whole
netting industry in Ohio, does not include any officeholders in the
Ohio Fish Producers Association, the older commercial organization,
nor does it include any members of a broad-spectrum, 14-member task
force that was established to review netting operations as mandated
by Senate Bill 77.
Among other things, the new law established a
three-strikes-and-out system for commercial netters convicted of
first-degree misdemeanors. The first misdemeanor violation would
result in a 15-day license suspension. The second within a 10-year
period would bring a 30-day suspension, and a third would lead to
permanent license revocation.
Reynolds, who could not be reached for comment by Ohio Outdoor
News, told The Blade in Toledo that the state’s ulterior motive is
to drive out what few remaining commercial fishermen exist in Ohio
in order to further accommodate the lucrative sport fishing
industry. The latter is a major player in northern Ohio’s
recreation and tourism industry.
“There was never any fiscal insight into what (the tougher set
of regulations) was going to cost us,” he told The Blade.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council told the newspaper
that commercial fishermen need to remember the Great Lakes belong
to the public at large, not just those holding commercial fishing
“A license is permissive; it’s predicated on good behavior,”
Shaner said. “Drive drunk, lose your license. Fish out of season,
lose your license.”
The new law mandates that netters equip their boats by March 1,
at their own expense, with devices to help the state track their
location as well as the size of their take from the lake.
The state contends that its enforcement costs of about $400,000
a year, would be reduced by installation of a computer system that
would track data supplied by the monitoring devices installed on
Larry Davis, a veteran commercial trapnetter and license holder,
and long-time member of the Fish Producers, said that he thinks
Reynolds and the GLCF’s lawsuit will be counterproductive.
“There was a particular group that felt like going through the
courts was the way to do it,” he said. That group, Davis said,
broke away from the Fish Producers.
Davis said that while he is not completely happy with the new
law and the task force’s work, he can live with it for now.
“I don’t think that the work of the task force is done,” he
said. Davis said that it appears that Gov. Ted Strickland’s
administration is showing signs of “wanting to work with us.”
Ontario commercial fishermen also apparently are resorting to
legal action in attempts to force their provincial government to
restructure the way catch quotas are set. They contend that the
U.S. sport fishing industry sways quotas at the expense of Ontario
Boat captain Willie Cronheimer, speaking at the lakeshore
netting community of Wheatley, Ont., told The Windsor Star that
this year’s allowable catch was cut 45 percent for yellow perch and
30 percent for walleye. That amounts to $300,000 worth of fish he
could net, he said, and his business and workers are threatened if
quotas keep falling.
Cronheimer and Port Stanley netter Larry Jackson have asked for
a judicial review by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. An
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources declined comment on a pending
suit but said 2008 quotas will not even be set until March, but
they could be lower.
Peter Meisenheimer, head man of the Ontario Commercial
Fisheries’ Association, told the newspaper that the Lake Erie
committee that sets quotas is stacked against Ontario, which is the
sole Canadian member along with the four border Lake Erie states –
Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. The states, he asserted,
tend to favor sport fishing interests.
On the other hand, Ohio’s remnant commercial netting industry,
all that remains of U.S. netting on the lake, is down to just a
relative handful of players with trapnet and seine licenses. It
pales in comparison to Ontario’s sizeable commercial netting
industry, which thrives on deadly gill nets that now are outlawed
in Ohio and other lake states.
The Canadian netting industry, centered at Wheatley and
Kingsville, lands about $30 million worth of fish a year and
employs more than 1,500 people. But its fish-processing arm
multiplies the dock value to more than $200 million a year.