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Fishermen protest north jetty closure

Nightly closure of the north Jetty in Sebastian Inlet State Park has been delayed but is still in the works, according to Martin Smithson, administrator of the Sebastian Inlet District.

After voting on Aug. 31 to install a gate to close the popular fishing spot at night because of increasing reports of rowdy and sometimes dangerous behavior, the district had trouble finding a company to fabricate and install a barrier.

“The company in Melbourne we are working with now is the fifth one we contacted,” Smithson said. “I guess it says something good about the economy that they are all so busy with such big order backlogs they couldn’t get this project done quickly.”

Smithson said the gate is now being fabricated and will be installed in about 10 days. It will be locked at night and trespassers will be cited if they climb over or go around it.

He said problems at the jetty are not surprising, considering that 900,000 people visited the park last year and there is no regular security patrol at night.

Although the Jetty is inside Sebastian Inlet State Park, the Inlet District, which is responsible for keeping the ocean-to-lagoon boat-way open and in good repair, owns the jetty.

“It is strictly a navigational structure,” Smithson said of the jetty, which helps control water flow and sand drift to keep the inlet navigable. “Fishing out there is a [secondary usage and revocable] privilege. When we made the agreement to allow fishing, the chief park ranger carried a gun and was a sworn officer. That is no longer the case.”

Smithson said the district hopes the closure is temporary. “We have met with Florida Fish and Wildlife, the state park people and Brevard Sheriff Department” to begin formulating a plan for nighttime security.

He said there have been reports for years of conflict between boaters passing through the inlet and fishermen, who feel the boats interfere with their fishing, but that the number of incidents has escalated and the incidents have become more serious in the past year.

Reportedly, some fishermen have cast hooked lines onto boats while others have thrown objects at boats and engaged in shouting matches.

The district posted signs detailing rules for behavior on the jetty in July and Smithson said Florida Fish and Wildlife rangers, who have police power, have stepped up patrols. But more needs to be done.

“The district is concerned about liability,” he said. “If we had to, we could close it to all fishing, night and day, permanently, but we don’t want to do that.”

Meanwhile, some fishermen have launched a petition drive to avert the closure, while others continue to enjoy night fishing unaware a locked gate will soon bar them from the jetty.

Tom Silverado of St. Lucie County said the petition drive is being led by his friend Dennis Hamilton of Palm Bay and that more than 600 people have signed so far to show support for keeping the jetty open at night.

“If they shut the north jetty down they will lose a lot of income,” said Silverado, who has been hauling his impressive fishing contraption out to the jetty to night-fish for a dozen years. “There are hardcore guys who come out here – they travel all the way from New York to fish this jetty. It’s the best fishery that you can access from shore in the U.S.”

This past weekend, the snook were running in the inlet and about 80 anglers were out on the jetty, hoping for tight lines and a good fight from a big fish.

Howard Yelen had no idea that his family’s favorite fishing spot would soon be closed at night. An immigration attorney from Weston in Broward County, Yelen said he visits the inlet at least 10 times a year with his two sons, ages 11 and 14. Sometimes they just drive up and back, but other times, as for a birthday celebration this past weekend, they stay longer and get a hotel room.

“We come here because it’s some of the best fishing in Florida and there are so many different types of fishing and different places for the boys to fish,” Yelen said.

He said he’s never witnessed a disturbance or any troubling behavior out on the North Jetty at night. In fact, he said it’s quiet enough that he cranks up his laptop and catches up on casework from the office while his sons enjoy the length of the jetty, scoping out the best spots to snag fish. “I’ve never had any problems out here personally, but I could see where there could be,” he said.

Victor Reyes and his family are even more frequent visitors to the Sebastian Inlet, drawn by the serenity and the adventure of night fishing on the north jetty. Reyes has been escaping city life and the tourist trap of Orlando just about every weekend since 1999, and for the past three years has been passing down his love of night fishing to his sons, Jason age 10 and Brian age 9.

“They will be very disappointed,” Victor Reyes said. “Instead of closing it, why don’t they put lights up?”

There are no lights on the jetty, except for the glow of the occasional flashlight or smart phone or other electronic device. Jason Reyes said the darkness adds a lot to the experience for him.

“I like it that there aren’t as many people here as during the day, so the lines won’t get all stuck together,” the 10-year-old Orlando boy said. “It’s nice. It’s cool, and it feels fresh.”

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