Cortez fishers net boatloads of trash

cortez cleanup boat jg 052015A bright pink roseate spoonbill flew overhead.

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.

cortez cleanup meschelle jg 052015Split 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.

cortez cleanup dumpster jg 052015Paul 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.

cortez cleanup help jg 052015The 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.

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.