By Willie Howard
Palm Beach County has posted four “cast netting prohibited” signs at the walkway entrances to the new Ocean Avenue Bridge in Lantana.
County Commissioner Steven Abrams said the county posted the signs (in mid-April) in hopes that cast netters would use the designated fishing platform below the bridge, instead of throwing their nets from the bridge span.
The move follows complaints from Lantana Mayor David Stewart, who lives on nearby Hypoluxo Island and has seen cast netters there several times in the wee hours of the morning since the $37 million county bridge opened in November.
Stewart said he often sees the netters between 2 and 5 a.m. and worries that some are taking more than their share of bait fish and other marine life, sometimes filling drums with the harvest from their nets.
Early April 7, Stewart said one cast netter was filling a bucket with the catch from his net on the bridge, then transferring his catch to a 55-gallon barrel.
“I’m passionate about people not taking more than they need,” Stewart said.
Hypoluxo Island resident Jennifer Spitznagel said she, too, is concerned that commercial netters are taking too many fish from the waters around the bridge.
“They’re hitting it hard,” Spitznagel said. “The habitat is just coming back. That area is getting slammed.”
Some cast netters have left oyster shells and fish scales on the walking path of the new bridge, which opened in November and features a designated fishing platform on its west side.
Stewart and Abrams say anglers — and cast netters —should use the fishing platform instead of throwing nets from the walkways and observation platforms on the north and south sides of the bridge.
Stewart said he has asked Lantana police to check anglers and cast netters who are fishing from the new bridge.
“I want it documented that they’re there so often, taking fish out of there,” Stewart said.
Lantana police have checked several anglers and netters since the new bridge opened. None had been charged with any wrongdoing as of early April.
A spokeswoman for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission said in early April that FWC officers had not charged any cast netters with violations at the Ocean Avenue Bridge since it opened last fall.
On Dec. 1, Lantana police noted that people fishing from the bridge refused to move when the bridge tender needed to open the drawbridge for a boat to pass through. They moved after police arrived.
In several cases, people fishing and netting from the bridge span have moved to the designated fishing catwalk or nearby sea walls as suggested by town police. But others have refused to leave, telling police that they catch more fish near the center of the bridge.
Lantana Manager Deborah Manzo said the town can’t outlaw fishing or cast netting on the bridge because it’s owned by Palm Beach County.
“We just check for fishing licenses and ask that they use the fishing pier,” Manzo said.
Abrams, the District 4 county commissioner, worked with county staff to post “cast netting prohibited” signs on the new bridge and on the County Road 707 bridge leading to Jupiter Island.
“Due to the fact that the people fishing do leave quite a mess behind, the county will be posting signs for no cast netting on two of our bridges,” Abrams said in an April 8 email.
“The county and this commissioner, working with the town of Lantana, devoted a lot of time, energy and money towards constructing the fishing platform as part of the bridge project, specifically so the needs of those wishing to fish would be met,” Abrams said.
Meanwhile, the Lantana Town Council recently decided to add parking meters to the spaces at Bicentennial Park, a move that could deter cast netters from using the bridge.
The waterfront park on the north side of Ocean Avenue is a popular destination for anglers. Installed in March, the meters charge $1.50 an hour for parking at Bicentennial Park.
Ann Spickler, owner of Perk’s Bait & Tackle off Lantana Road, said the hourly parking fee is discouraging families from fishing at the park — and hurting her business.
“They slipped it in without telling anybody about it,” Spickler said. “How many people will go down there and take the kids if they have to pay a meter?”
Marc Lee, owner of Bar Jack’s Fish Tales tackle shop and the Lady K drift fishing boat on the west side of Sportsman’s Park, said he has no objection to the parking meters — except that they worsen an already troublesome parking situation along Ocean Avenue.