In February 2016 activists chased a notorious illegal fishing vessel into the port of Dakar, Senegal. The capture of the vessel on Interpol’s most wanted list was a victory for global cooperation in a country with some of the most progressive fishing laws in Africa.
West Africa’s fisheries are some of the most exploited in the world with the highest instances of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) globally. In response, Senegal made significant steps within the past four years to stymie illegal fishing and promote sustainability with the aid of community organizing, government policies, environmentalists and international support.
However, local fishers’ associations, the government and activists face threats of violence and a lack of resources to protect their seas. These defenders of the sea are vital for protecting the overfished waters from foreign and national vessels ignoring the law.
Capt. Nate Meschelle, at the helm, turned to the boat of volunteers.
“Hey, look! It’s a flamingo!” he said.
The boat of locals erupted in laughter.
Meschelle was one of a handful of commercial fishers from Cortez who volunteered time and boats for a coastal cleanup May 9.
The cleanup was organized by Mark Coarsey president of Fishing For Freedom’s Manatee County chapter. Fishing For Freedom is a group of mostly commercial fishers advocating for its local industry.
The cleanup was organized in conjunction with the Great American Cleanup with the help of Audubon Florida, Keep Manatee Beautiful and Manatee County, which provided a dumpster, gloves and trash bags.
Split into groups by the boatload, 28 volunteers hit the shorelines of Cortez and nearby mangrove islands, including Tidy Island and Bird Key.
The area is known locally as “The Kitchen.”
“Back in the day, when you wanted something to eat, that’s where you would go. That’s why its called The Kitchen,” said Coarsey.
Meschelle brought one group of volunteers to Tidy Island, where debris that washes ashore at high tide piles up, Meschelle said.
The tide carries the trash onto the mangrove island and, as the tides go out, it’s trapped by mangrove roots.
Ann Paul, Tampa Bay regional coordinator for the Florida Audubon Society, also boarded a commercial fishing vessel for the cleanup.
Paul wasn’t necessarily looking to pick up the washed-up trash, but to help guide the volunteers around sensitive bird roosting areas — particularly on Cortez Key Sanctuary.
“(The key) is one of the most important bird nesting sites in Sarasota Bay. We were really glad the cleanup work didn’t impact nesting birds and, in the meantime, they were able to get trash off the island,” said Paul.
Known locally to fishers as Bird Key or Kitchen Key, the mangrove island was leased from the state by Audubon Florida in 1981.
The key is an important nesting ground, where colonies of pelicans, cormorants, herons, ibis, roseate spoonbills and frigate birds frequent the island by the hundreds.
The key is posted as “No Trespassing” to protect nesting birds. The wading and shorebirds nest in the spring and summer months.
Paul said she met Coarsey two months before the cleanup, as she was launching from Cortez for a bird survey and Coarsey was pulling into the dock.
The two collaborated on the cleanup, a necessary step, Paul said. People are not allowed in the sanctuary without an Audubon manager.
Paul likened the mangroves in estuaries to a kidney. Things get trapped in the mangroves during high tide, effectively cleaning the bay waters and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico, which connects to Sarasota Bay.
“(Fishing For Freedom) is a great group and how lucky are we that they’re taking this positive approach,” said Paul. “This group is taking a real leadership role.”
Coarsey said the 20-yard dumpster provided to the volunteers was “more than full” and he speculated they could have filled a second dumpster. The garbage collected in five hours weighed more 6,000 pounds, Coarsey said.
Much of the debris collected consisted of lumber or drift wood, including a portion of the hull of a boat. Among endless beer cans and bottles, other items collected included full-sized trashcans, a deflated basketball, lawn chairs and a chainsaw.
This article was originally published in The Islander May 20, 2015.
Perico Island, Fla. – It’s two steps forward and one step back for development on Perico Island.
Three petitions have been accepted that ask to review a permit issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District for development on Perico Island. The petitions filed with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings DOAH challenge the permit issued for four single-family homes in August to developer Pat Neal.
The land on Perico Island owned through a trust by Neal and his family consists of 40 acres of waterfront property. Neal plans to build four homes on four of the acres.
The petitioners — former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and ManaSota-88 — assert the permit allows for insufficiently mitigated destruction of wetlands. The petitions, consolidated Oct. 31 request an administrative review of the Swiftmud permit.
McClash attended FISH’s Nov. 3 board meeting to speak to members about going forward. He said they could hire an attorney or he could, if they agreed, serve as the “qualified representative” on FISH’s behalf.
After brief discussion, FISH members agreed unanimously to have McClash represent the group. He was accepted Nov. 13 as the representative by DOAH.
McClash also urged FISH at its meeting to send a letter to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently considering a permit for the development. The letter wouldn’t be the first discouraging an Army Corps of Engineers permit at the proposed site.
The U. S. Fish and Wildlife reviewed the pending Army Corps of Engineer’s permit and in June sent a letter recommending denial of the permit because of the sensitive wetland areas to be affected and the project being non-water dependent.
“I’ve had good conversations with the Swiftmud attorneys. This is fact-based and it’s better than letting it go through without challenging it,” McClash told FISH board members.
He said he enlisted a water-quality specialist to serve as an expert witness and solicited other possible expert witnesses from FISH.
John Stevely, a FISH board member and former agent for the Florida Sea Grant Extension Service, offered to help compile factual evidence for the case.
And factual evidence is key.
The land trust filed a motion to dismiss Nov. 3 citing a lack of factual evidence, proof of substantial interest or injury of fact.
The motion to dismiss asserts that the evidence supplied thus far isn’t sufficient to rise above “a speculative level.”
The motion states the only allegations establishing standing are that McClash owns property in the “undefined and unidentified ‘drainage district’, uses the ‘area adjacent to the area impacted’ for recreational activities, has been involved in the protection of wetlands and waters in the area, and that he would suffer an economic injury by alleged increased insurance costs.”
The motion claims that the “alleged injuries are remote, speculative and lack immediacy” and McClash “does not have standing merely because he uses the area for recreational activities.”
The land trust filed another motion to dismiss Nov. 19 challenging FISH’s standing.
McClash responded Nov. 6 to the challenge of his petition and said as the representative for FISH he is preparing a response to the challenge of its standing.
“I really feel they’re setting a stage for future mangrove destruction,” McClash said referring to planned developments in the area. “With the destruction of these mangroves, we might as well kiss Long Bar and Terra Ceia goodbye.”
The homes planned by Neal on Perico Island would be for his immediate family members, Neal said. The Bradenton City Council approved the site-plan for the project — now called Harbor Sound — in June.
Neal said in an earlier interview he has no plans to develop the remaining 36 acres of the Harbor Sound property after the four homes are built.
“Harbor Sound was always intended to be just four homes for our family,” he said.
A hearing has been set for 1 p.m. Feb. 16-20 at Swiftmud’s Tampa Service Office, 7601 U.S. 301 N., Tampa.
Perico Island has seen its share of development plans over the years.
Once farmland, the area was acquired in the late 1990s by Arvida Corp., which proposed an 886-unit condominium project with several 10- and 12-story structures. The land was annexed into the city of Bradenton and the project was approved by the city.
The approval was met with lawsuits alleging the site plan did not meet the requirements of the city’s comprehensive plan. Manatee County — which recently denied waterfront development on property owned by Long Bar Pointe —was one of the plaintiffs.
The development was whittled down to 668 units and Arvida changed its name to St. Joe Corp. By the mid-2000s, the developer lacked buyers for the $500,000 condominiums it planned to build. St. Joe had paid $2 million for the land.
The company sold the property in 2009 to Minto Communities LLC of Toronto and Fort Lauderdale for $8 million.
Minto submitted a site plan for Harbour Isle which included a series of “coach-home” complexes, and Bradenton approved the plan in 2010.
According to Brady Woods, Bradenton development services and zoning manager, Minto is approved to build four midrise buildings at 6-stories and two 10-story highrise buildings in Harbour Isle.
Minto Senoir Vice President William Bullock said the height allowances were in place when they bought the property and plans are still being dicussed. He added there is no time table for construction and the future plans are dependent on the real estate market.
The company began selling units in December 2010. Prices started around $225,000 when Harbour Isle opened its first community, Mangrove Walk, in 2011. Home prices now start at approximately $463,000.
Anna Maria Island, Fla. – Those passing by Passage Key on their watercrafts get more than a view of the birds at the wildlife refuge.
Passage Key is a nationally designated wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And it’s a popular spot for nudists.
The FWS released a statement in late June that said officials were surprised to see a reemerging sandbar, more than four acres in size where the National Wildlife Refuge, Passage Key was designated previously existed.
It had eroded and disappeared almost seven years ago.
“When Passage Key first started reemerging a few months ago, we were under the impression that it would vanish in weeks, like it had been in the previous 7 years. To everyone’s surprise, the sand has been continually accumulating, rising at several feet above the high-water mark,” said Stan Garner, FWS supervisory law enforcement officer, in the June release.
Officials also reported a high number of nesting colonies of least terns and loafing colonies of royal and sandwich terns, black skimmers, pelicans, oystercatchers and other shorebirds, amidst hundreds of visitors surrounding its shores.
However, the hundreds of visitors to the once submerged wildlife refuge are mostly nudists.
“The island has gotten overwhelming attention from the nudist community,” said Ivan Vicente, FWS visitors services specialist. “The thing is, the island came back up, so the nudist community tripled in the last four months and they claimed it as their nudist island.”
Extra markers were placed on the perimeter of the reemerging island, notifying visitors the area is a federally protected wildlife refuge.
Vicente said people are allowed to visit the island by boat, and stand in the water, but they cannot walk on land. The new markers allow people to stand in the shallow water around the island, while keeping them far enough away so as to not disturb the birds.
“Ever since it was established as a refuge, it was never allowed for people to be on it. We are reinstituting normal regulations. Now, even in high tide, part of the island is exposed. We don’t care about excluding people, we care about preserving the wildlife,” Vicente said.
Passage Key also is the site of a dispute that led to a suspicious death that is being investigated by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
Vicente said a helicopter landed on Passage Key July 13 in an attempt to locate Pamela Carter Doster, who later died July 16 in at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.
The helicopter flushed the birds from the refuge, however Vicente said some of the birds have returned to feed and loaf.
Passage Key was the second established national wildlife refuge in 1905 by Theodore Roosevelt. The preserve is particularly important for nesting colonies of native seabirds and wading birds.
Passage Key also was the first refuge to be a federally designated Wilderness Area, in 1970 under the Wilderness Act of 1964.
In the early 1900s, Passage Key was a 60-acre mangrove island with a freshwater lake.
Passage Key began to shrink following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons. The storms eroded away significant portions of the island. The refuge went completely underwater following the presence of hurricane Alberto in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.
“No one expected it. It’s almost like the hand of God dumped sand on the shoal,” said Vicente.
Officials have stepped up enforcement to keep people off the land, however Vicente said there isn’t constant enforcement.
Passage Key is jointly patrolled by the FWS and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“We don’t a have a problem with nudity out there, as long as it’s not happening on land. We manage animals first and then people,” he said.
This article was originally published in The Islander August 13, 2014.
Bradenton Beach, Fla. – The home on Avenue B in Bradenton Beach looks like any other on the street. The exception is the large tortoises milling around the fenced front yard, the colorful parrots calling “Hello” along the side yard, and the cages stacked upon cages filled with various wildlife in the backyard.
Wildlife Inc., an education and rehabilitation center for wildlife, calls Bradenton Beach home in the otherwise non-descript neighborhood.
Amid the screeching of birds, Gail Straight co-owner of the rehab with husband Ed Straight, a Bradenton Beach commissioner, said the organization is now facing a new financial obstacle.
“We’re trying to find a sponsor. They’re discontinuing the blood drive on the island,” said Straight. “For us it’s a matter of life and death if we can’t find out where the money is going to come from.”
The annual island blood drive was a saving grace for Wildlife Inc., and benefitted three other island charities: Anna Maria Island Privateers, Anna Maria Island Community Center and the volunteer West Manatee Fire and Rescue Auxiliary.
During the island blood drive, donors chose one or shared $100, given by an anonymous donor among the four charities.
Straight said the blood drive was Wildlife Inc.’s single biggest fundraiser, providing on average $10,000 in the weekend-long event.
Other sources of income for Wildlife Inc., include donations collected at festivals, payments for shows and two small local grants. Straight said the nonprofit also receives a small amount of personal donations.
Wildlife Inc. brings shows into Manatee and Sarasota county schools, organized by education director David Sadkin, but Straight said the fee for educational programs in schools is low to make it more affordable for the school.
“If you apply for 100 grants, you might get one. That’s why the blood donations were so important,” Straight said.
She said they learned in July the blood donation program was moving off the island.
Straight said Wildlife Inc. has been getting in more hawks and owls, birds of prey that are expensive to feed and has spent $10,000 this year on rats and chicks to feed those birds.
Wildlife Inc. rescues wildlife from all over Tampa Bay. The rehabilitation center has been in operation in Bradenton Beach for 28 years, and a second educational location, has operated for four years at Mixon Fruit Farm in Bradenton.
Wildlife Inc. employee Damen Hurd cares for the animals at the Mixon location and leads tours.
“This is really going to hit us hard. Hopefully the public will step up and help us out. It’s really sad. There’s not a lot people who will give donations to wildlife, but all kinds of people call for us to rescue them. We want to do it, but it’s hard to continue when you’re pouring your own money into it,” Hurd said.
The expansion to Mixon’s served several purposes. The space on the farm houses many animals that could not be released back into the wild due to permanent injuries another, and gives Wildlife Inc. a platform to educate the public about local wildlife.
The wildlife tours are integrated into Mixon’s tours of the citrus groves. Hurd said Mixon charges $10 for adults, and $5 for children to take the tour. For every adult 50 cents and a quarter from each child’s ticket goes to Wildlife Inc. And Mixon built some of the wildlife enclosures.
“The whole goal coming out here was to support the rehab. Now expenses have gone up and it’s just not sustainable. We’re really taking a hit,” said Hurd.
This article was originally published in The Islander, August 13, 2014.
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.
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.
Bradenton Beach, Fla. – Its feathers were matted with blood and a thin layer of tissue separated its small beating heart from exposure.
A harrowing two-day effort to save a badly injured screech owl produced thousands of social media responses offering well wishes, prayers and praise for the work of Wildlife Inc, even after its death.
The small eastern screech owl was rushed into Wildlife Inc. in Bradenton Beach March 11. The owl had sustained a major injury to its chest after meeting with a chainsaw.
A tree trimmer accidentally sawed the bird’s chest wide open as he sawed through a log it was hiding in. The tree trimmer immediately rushed the owl to Wildlife Inc.
“The tree trimmers are really good about it, most of them are good people,” said Gail Straight, owner of Wildlife Inc.
Wildlife Inc.’s Facebook post assured its audience the tree trimmers were animal lovers and the injury was accidental.
At Wildlife Inc., the Straights had a decision to make: whether try to save the owl, or put the animal down. Despite the injury to the chest, the owl appeared to be alert and active.
The bird went to the Island Animal Clinic the same day and Dr. Ashley Gardener performed surgery. The screech owl survived the surgery and the first night at Wildlife Inc.
“It looked like it was really going to do well. It’s such a bummer the little guy didn’t make it,” said Straight.
Wildlife Inc. announced around 2 p.m. March 11 to Facebook fans: “Unfortunately the little screech owl with the chest wound did not survive. We gave it a try and that’s all we can do. At least he died in a comfortable place on pain medication. I was really hoping he would pull through.”
However vigilant tree trimmers are, birds frequently come into Wildlife Inc. with similar injuries this time of year Straight said. This time of year is nesting season for many migratory birds. The screech owl is not a migratory bird.
To remove a nest of a migratory bird from a tree is illegal without a permit from the Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It is also illegal to kill migratory birds.
Screech owls are usually heard and not seen. The small species of owl have excellent camouflage, and hide in the nooks and crannies of trees in the day. Their sound is a trilling or whinny sound.
Screech owls can be found in urban or rural settings, wherever there are trees, particularly around water.
With patience and a sharp-eye, they may be sighted at the entrance of their tree-cavity home.
This article was originally published in The Islander March 19, 2014.
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.