Updated March 27, 2018
The CRC did not select the net ban proposal in its last cut for the November ballot.
CORTEZ – Nearly 25 years after Floridians voted to ban gill nets, commercial fishermen are asking the Florida Constitution Revision Commission (CRC) to let voters revisit that decision in November.
Cortez commercial fisherman Mark Coarsey gave the commission several reasons to place the issue on the ballot at a 10-hour public hearing on Tuesday, March 13 in St. Petersburg that drew 430 people speaking on proposals ranging from greyhound racing to oil drilling.
The net ban has undermined the state’s Fresh From Florida seafood campaign because Florida fishermen cannot catch enough fish to meet market demands without the banned nets, opening the door to more foreign seafood imports, said Coarsey, president of the Manatee chapter of Fishing For Freedom.
“The nets we are made to use are not commercially feasible,” he said, catching more unwanted juvenile fish than the outlawed two-inch mesh nets that let smaller fish escape.
He has demonstrated this with the two types of nets at the last two Cortez Commercial Fishing Festivals, where more than 500 people signed a petition to reinstate the banned nets, he said.
Frustrated that commissioners were looking at their phones during the two minutes allotted to him, Coarsey left his notes and spoke informally, making eye contact to regain their attention, he said later, adding that Commission Chair Carlos Beruff left the podium when Coarsey’s name was called. Cortezians vocally opposed Beruff’s planned development, Aqua by the Bay, across Sarasota Bay from the fishing village.
“Let the fishermen run the fishery,” Coarsey told commissioners. “They know what they need to do. They’re more environmentalist than anybody. That’s their livelihood.”
“We need y’alls help. Every time we come up with an idea to get our nets back, they change the law,” he said, referring to Florida court cases on the issue that have been repeatedly decided and overturned.
The net ban was put back into place after appeals with influence from recreational fishing groups and activists with political interests, Nathaniel Anderson, of Fishing For Freedom’s Manatee chapter, told commissioners.
“The legislation was written without using due process or utilizing science-based research,” violating the civil rights of fishermen, he said.
The net ban was passed illegally, having been placed on the ballot using false information, Anderson told commissioners.
Florida voters approved the ban in 1994 after a highly publicized media campaign showing dolphins and sea turtles caught in what were purportedly Florida commercial fishermen’s nets, disputed at the time and later disproved.
Commercial fishermen in Cortez and throughout the state say they have struggled ever since to continue making a living on the sea.
Navigating constitutional waters
Navigating the process of getting the issue on the ballot is not easy, Coarsey said. Fishing For Freedom had to create a proposal, “Protecting Florida’s Traditional Fishermen and Restoring Sound Science and Best Management Practices to Florida’s Fisheries,” which crosses out every word of the net ban amendment, Article X, Section 16 of the Florida Constitution, entitled “Limiting marine net fishing.”
And then there is the politics.
“We were told when we walked in the door that we should have talked to each commissioner first to get put on the agenda,” he said. “We were asked who we are sponsored by. We’re fishermen, we’re not paid politicians.”
The public hearing was the final one before the CRC begins meeting this month to decide which proposals to put on the November ballot.
Once every 20 years, Florida’s Constitution provides that a 37-member commission be created to review the Constitution and make proposed changes for voter consideration. The CRC meets for about a year around the state, identifying and researching issues before recommending changes.
At least 60 percent of the state’s voters must approve a Constitutional amendment to make it law.
Gill net ban, Florida Constitution, Article X, Section 16
“Limiting marine net fishing”
“The marine resources of the State of Florida belong to all of the people of the state and should be conserved and managed for the benefit of the state, its people, and future generations. To this end the people hereby enact limitations on marine net fishing in Florida waters to protect saltwater finfish, shellfish, and other marine animals from unnecessary killing, overfishing and waste.
For the purpose of catching or taking any saltwater finfish, shellfish or other marine animals in Florida waters:
No gill nets or other entangling nets shall be used in any Florida waters; and
In addition to the prohibition set forth in (1), no other type of net containing more than 500 square feet of mesh area shall be used in nearshore and inshore Florida waters. Additionally, no more than two such nets, which shall not be connected, shall be used from any vessel, and no person not on a vessel shall use more than one such net in nearshore and inshore Florida waters.
For purposes of this section:
“gill net” means one or more walls of netting which captures saltwater finfish by ensnaring or entangling them in the meshes of the net by the gills, and “entangling net” means a drift net, trammell net, stab net, or any other net which captures saltwater finfish, shellfish, or other marine animals by causing all or part of heads, fins, legs, or other body parts to become entangled or ensnared in the meshes of the net, but a hand thrown cast net is not a gill net or an entangling net;
“mesh area” of a net means the total area of netting with the meshes open to comprise the maximum square footage. The square footage shall be calculated using standard mathematical formulas for geometric shapes. Seines and other rectangular nets shall be calculated using the maximum length and maximum width of the netting. Trawls and other bag type nets shall be calculated as a cone using the maximum circumference of the net mouth to derive the radius, and the maximum length from the net mouth to the tail end of the net to derive the slant height. Calculations for any other nets or combination type nets shall be based on the shapes of the individual components;
“coastline” means the territorial sea base line for the State of Florida established pursuant to the laws of the United States of America;
“Florida waters” means the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida, and any other bodies of water under the jurisdiction of the State of Florida, whether coastal, intracoastal or inland, and any part thereof; and
“nearshore and inshore Florida waters” means all Florida waters inside a line three miles seaward of the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico and inside a line one mile seaward of the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.
This section shall not apply to the use of nets for scientific research or governmental purposes.
Persons violating this section shall be prosecuted and punished pursuant to the penalties provided in section 370.021(2)(a),(b),(c)6. and 7., and (e), Florida Statutes (1991), unless and until the legislature enacts more stringent penalties for violations hereof. On and after the effective date of this section, law enforcement officers in the state are authorized to enforce the provisions of this section in the same manner and authority as if a violation of this section constituted a violation of Chapter 370, Florida Statutes (1991).
It is the intent of this section that implementing legislation is not required for enforcing any violations hereof, but nothing in this section prohibits the establishment by law or pursuant to law of more restrictions on the use of nets for the purpose of catching or taking any saltwater finfish, shellfish, or other marine animals.
If any portion of this section is held invalid for any reason, the remaining portion of this section, to the fullest extent possible, shall be severed from the void portion and given the fullest possible force and application.
This section shall take effect on the July 1 next occurring after approval hereof by vote of the electors.”