As workers in Tallahassee prepared for a day in the appellate court, two Cortez fishers packed their bags.
Mark Coarsey, president of the fledging Manatee County chapter of Fishing for Freedom, began making plans to travel to Tallahassee when he first heard Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal would hear the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s challenge to 2nd Judicial Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling on a statewide ban on gill nets. The circuit ruling was issued in October 2013.
The constitutional amendment restricting gill nets and mesh sizes of nets rocked the commercial fishing industry in Cortez and other commercial fisheries across the state when approved by Florida voters in 1994. The ban took effect in 1995.
Fulford’s ruling in Wakulla Commercial Fishermen’s Association v. Florida Fish and Wildlife overturned the net ban, making it ineffective. Her order triggered an appeal from the FWC.
The now 20-year legal battle over the ban is seeing an emergence of a grassroots collective representing fishers across the state.
Cortez fishers Coarsey and Nate “Toasty” Meschelle met up with other representatives from around the state of the Fishing for Freedom group in Tallahassee May 15 to attend a protest and a hearing.
Coarsey said 50-60 people attended the demonstration outside of the FWC building, most wearing their FFF T-shirts. The shirts, on the back, state, “Biology versus Politics.”
Following the protest, FFF members filled the courtroom for the hearing.
“We represented Manatee County. Is it important we went up there? Yes,” said Coarsey. “They’re taking out a species of fisherman.”
The net ban was intended to promote sustainable fishing practices, and it almost exclusively affects commercial mullet fishers. The FWC contends the rule is intended to protect fish populations by preventing over-fishing. The Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association, the group facing the FWC in court, says the amendment does not achieve its intent.
Coarsey says limiting the mesh size of the nets means it is more difficult for fishers to net legal-sized fish and, instead, many juvenile fish are caught, producing a bycatch that the net ban was supposed to prevent.
“Let us go catch our fish, you won’t have the bycatch we’ve been having, and you won’t have the junk in our bays,” said Coarsey. “Commercial fishermen are out to protect our resource.”
A three-judge panel listened May 15 to testimony from attorneys representing the Wakulla group and the FWC.
If the panel of judges sides with the Wakulla group, the Fulford ruling will be upheld and the net ban will be lifted.
However, the FWC could appeal a loss to the Florida Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Cortez fishers are hopeful — hoping to go back to the practice of many generations that puts food on the table for their families and others.