Commercial net fishers in Florida can stop holding their breath.
Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals three-judge panel in Tallahassee sided July 7 with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, affirming the commission’s authority to enforce the state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1994.
The appellate court ruling reversed a decision by Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford that was issued in October 2013, allowing Florida fishers to use gill nets of certain wider mesh sizes.
Fulford’s ruling in the case of Wakulla Commercial Fishermen’s Association v. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission called the rule a “legal absurdity,” and sided with the commercial fishers.
The FWC was quick to file a stop order on Fulford’s ruling and filed an appeal in the 1st DCA. The appellate court heard arguments from FWC lawyers and Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association lawyers in May.
“The trial court’s ruling, however well-intentioned it might have been, was erroneous,” 1st DCA judges wrote in their opinion.
The constitutional amendment restricts overall net sizes and mesh sizes of nets for commercial fishers. Fishers have contested the rule, bringing it in and out of courts, for 20 years.
The FWC contends the rule is intended to preserve fish populations by preventing over-fishing, and the Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association contends that the rules do not achieve those intentions.
Fishers argue limiting the mesh size of the nets means it is more difficult for fishers to net legal-sized fish and juvenile fish are caught instead, producing a bycatch that the net-ban intended to eliminate.
However, this court’s ruling has not dampened the efforts of organizations opposing the rule.
“We’ve come this far, we’re not going to give up,” said Mark Coarsey, president of the Manatee chapter of Fishing for Freedom.
The FFF is a statewide organization of commercial fishers supporting the Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association’s mission. Annual membership fees and T-shirt sales go toward court costs and attorney fees. FFF also holds net-fishing demonstrations and educates the public on the commercial fishing industry as well as the impact the net ban has had on the industry and the lives of fishers.
“We’re going to take it back to court. We just don’t know which way. We just want to make sure we do it the right way,” Coarsey said.
FISH supports local fisher group
The Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage lent its support July 7 for a local fisher’s political action group, Fishing for Freedom.
FISH board member Jane von Hahmann suggested the group support FFF with a cash donation.
“I think we need to make a bigger statement as an organization,” von Hahmann said.
FISH board members decided to join the FFF’s Manatee chapter with a $500 membership contribution.
“I kind of staggered a little bit. For them to come out and give $500,” said Mark Coarsey, FFF-Manatee president.
Coarsey said individual membership in the local FFF group costs $5 per year.
The local FFF holds meetings at Fishermen’s Hall, owned by FISH, in exchange for lawn maintenance. At the July 7 meeting, Coarsey said his group is willing to do more in appreciation — repairs to windows, stairs and restrooms at the hall.
“We want to make it known we’re not just a bunch of fisherman sitting around,” Coarsey said. “We’ve been trying to make a difference.”