Cortez fishers talk about gill net ban

Cortez, Fla. – On Oct. 22, the ban on gill net fishing, imposed in 1995, was lifted by a circuit court judge in Tallahassee. Just over two weeks later, on Nov. 6, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee granted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission an automatic stay on the injunction, allowing FWC officials to enforce the ban.

“It’s typical,” Karen Bell, of AP Bell Fish Co. 4539 124th St., Cortez said. “They lifted it and rescinded it 10 days later or something like that.”

The lifting of the ban was seen as a victory for the lawsuit on behalf of the commercial fishing industry, headed by Wakulla County mullet fishers against the FWC. Despite the victory, commercial fishers in Cortez aren’t surprised by the restrictions back in place.

“If the ban was lifted, they were right there waiting to overturn it,” said Kathe Fannon, a fourth-generation Cortez fisher.

The ban, which took effect in 1995, has been disputed as unfair and ineffective by commercial fishers across the state but defended as a necessary conservation measure by the FWC.

“No one came out here and asked us how we fish, how we maintain and how we thrive,” Fannon said. “If they ever went out with us, watched how we work, they never would have done this.”

Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford, who rendered the Oct. 22 ruling lifting the ban, did just that. Fulford considered the issue for a year and went mullet fishing to see how the nets work. Her ruling was a result, in part, of her experience, and she called the net-ban law an “absolute mess.”

“After the net ban in ’95, four out of the five fish houses here went bankrupt three weeks later. We’ve been here for over 100 years thriving, through the great depression,” Fannon said. “They didn’t take the nets, they destroyed an industry that’s been here since the beginning of time.”

The ban’s intention was to eliminate by catch, the unintended capture of juvenile fish and other marine life. An agency rule aimed at this purpose defines a gill net as any net with a stretched mesh greater than 2 inches. The rule left commercial fishers to use hand-thrown cast nets, which do a poor job of catching legal-sized fish and kills juvenile fish in the process.

The lifting and replacing the gill net restriction may not be all for naught.

“At least people are thinking about it and I think some people are seeing that (the net ban) wasn’t done properly,” Bell told The Islander in an earlier interview. Florida residents are “at least more respectful of what these guys go through to bring domestic seafood to consumers.”

The ban-a constitutional amendment was passed in 1994 and was supported by 72 percent of Florida voters. Fannon cites the media coverage leading up to the ban for the skewed perspective on the effects of gill nets.

“Florida Sportsman magazine, the Bradenton Herald all ran photos of dead, bloody dolphins, the same beautiful dolphins I take people on charters to see, as a result of gill nets. It’s just not accurate,” Fannon said.

The fishers of Cortez pride themselves on their long lines of family operations and hand-manufacturing of boats and nets. Fannon said, the nets she made with her father were designed to catch larger fish, and allow juveniles to break free, returning to the water to spawn to maintain a sustainable supply. She also said the Cortez boats, known as kickers, were designed to protect the seagrass beds.

“It’s a finely tuned process we’ve perfected over generations and we ran it like professionals,” Fannon said. “We’ve been here for over 100 years making a living from these waters, and we treat it with respect.”

The stay on Fulford’s injunction will remain in place until the appeal’s court has considered the claims. For now, no gill net fishing.

This article was originally published in The Islander Dec. 18, 2013.