Cortez Fishing for Freedom members attend protest, appellate

Cortez, Fla. – As workers in Tallahassee prepared for a day in the appellate court, two Cortez fishers packed their bags.

President of the fledging Manatee County chapter of Fishing for Freedom, Mark Coarsey, began making plans to travel to Tallahassee when he heard the 1st District Court of Appeal would hear the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s appeal to Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling concerning on a statewide ban on gill nets issued 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 Commericial Fishermen’s Association v. Florida Fish and Wildlife over turned the net-ban, making it ineffective, which was quickly met with an appeal and stop order 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 of Florida and is gaining traction on the Fulford ruling.

Cortez fishers Coarsey and Nate “Toasty” Meschelle met up with the Fishing for Freedom group in Tallahassee May 15 to attend a protest and hearing.

The Fishing for Freedom group gathers May 15 around FFF president Ronald Fred Crum and vice president David Grix at a protest at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission building in Tallahassee. The group held signs in protest before the hearing on the recent net-ban ruling at the 1st District Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Nate Michelle
The Fishing for Freedom group gathers May 15 around FFF president Ronald Fred Crum and vice president David Grix at a protest at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission building in Tallahassee. The group held signs in protest before the hearing on the recent net-ban ruling at the 1st District Court of Appeals. Photo courtesy Nate Meschelle

Coarsey said 50-60 people attended the peaceful protest in Tallahassee outside of the FWC building, most wearing their FFF T-shirts. The shirts have a prominent phrase across the back reading, “Biology vs. 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 hotly contested net-ban intended to address sustainable fishing practices, and almost exclusively affects mullet fishers. The FWC contends the rule is intended to preserve fish populations by preventing over-fishing. The Wakulla Commercial Fisherman’s Association, the group facing the FWC at the 1st DCA, say the rules do not achieve the intentions.

Coarsey says 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.

“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. A ruling for the case will be issued after the judges have reviewed the testimony and any new evidence offered.

If the panel of judges sides with the Wakulla group, the Fulford ruling will be upheld and the net-ban will be lifted.