CORTEZ – During a fast-paced legal ping pong match that lifted and reinstated the gill net ban four times in three weeks, Cortez fishermen had brief windows of time to go gill netting for the first time in 18 years.
Most took the news of the gill net ban being lifted with a boatload of salt and stayed home.
A few braved the waters, with even fewer admitting to it, fearing retribution from marine officers of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which twice appealed a Tallahassee judge’s October ruling lifting the 1995 ban on gill nets. Each appeal stayed – or temporarily invalidated – her ruling, reinstating the net ban.
Conflicting answers from officers with the FWC and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and rumors of an arrest in Pinellas County contributed to fishermen laying low.
“I been in this business so long, I know what would happen. I’d be taken downtown and have to raise bail and waste a day in court that I could be on the water,” said one fisherman, who did not want to be identified.
Another fisherman accused the FWC of profiling commercial fishermen, targeting them for violations while looking the other way when sports fishermen break marine laws.
Cortez fisherman Soupy Davis said the mistrust goes back nearly 20 years, when proponents of the state constitutional net ban amendment “told a bunch of stories about miles and miles and miles of entangling nets” catching dolphins and turtles, he said. “That’s not true.”
Judge goes fishing
Judge Jackie Fulford of the Leon County Second Circuit Court went fishing with the plaintiffs and agreed. She ruled on Oct. 22 that the FWC could no longer enforce the amendment banning gill nets.
The net ban and the FWC’s rules create what she called the “legal absurdity” of prohibiting larger mesh gill nets that let juvenile fish go, while allowing smaller mesh cast nets that catch juvenile fish, which she said defeats the purpose of the ban, to preserve fish populations.
An FWC appeal stayed her order, but she lifted the ban again on Oct. 30. A second FWC appeal stayed her second order, and the case is now pending in the First District Court of Appeal, although the fishermen who brought the case have requested that the Florida Supreme Court hear it as a matter of great public importance.
“The mesh size restrictions are still in place. They can only use two inch or less stretch mesh,” according to Tracy Douglas, of the Tallahassee law firm representing Wakulla Commercial Fishermen’s Association Inc., Ronald Fred Crum, Jonas Porter and Keith Ward. “Unless the First DCA rules in our favor, which will take months if it happens at all, the status quo is going to remain the same.”
After its second appeal, the FWC posted on its website this warning: “FWC will enforce the net limitation rules and regulations as defined in the Florida Constitution, administrative code and statute.”
The constitutional amendment was passed by Florida voters in 1994 to ban gill nets in state waters as a way of preserving fish populations and preventing the accidental entrapment of sea turtles and marine mammals such as dolphins and manatees. It went into effect in 1995, putting much of the commercial fishing village of Cortez out of work.
“The net ban amendment was a mandate resulting from concerned and informed citizens who wanted to protect the public’s vital sport fishing fisheries from unsustainable fishing practices,” said sport fishing Capt. Wayne Genthner, of Longboat Key-based Wolfmouth Charters.
“To allow a select few people the advantage of subverting the public will in this matter is indefensible,” he said.
The net ban has enabled the fishery for snook, pompano, spotted sea trout, red drum, black drum, mangrove snapper and blue fish to thrive, supporting recreational fishing, a “first magnitude economic driver” in Florida, Genthner said.
“Recreational fishing in Florida is too important to endanger by resuming a style of thinking which is best characterized by an attitude of ‘It’s all about me first.’ It’s not a friendly way to interact with the facts on hand and it serves no constructive purpose other than to muddy the waters until the last bucket of fish has been tangled through its gills,” he said.