Cortez fishing community keeps fingers crossed after judge's ruling against gill net ban

vmannix@bradenton.comOctober 25, 2013 

CORTEZ -- Karen Bell doesn't throw anything away in her office at A.P. Bell Fish Co., the hulking gray landmark on the southwest corner of the historic fishing village.

She has old mending needles and compasses and sounding equipment used by generations of commercial fishermen.

Bell also has gill net samples that her father, Walter, gave her 20 years ago when she was the office manager and spoke anywhere and everywhere trying to educate the public about the proposed gill net ban on the 1995 election ballot, which would ultimately pass and become law.

Almost 20 years later, two days after a Leon County circuit judge overturned that ban, Bell held the gill nets in her hand.

"I may need to pull them back out," the fish company co-owner said Thursday.

A talisman, perhaps?

Bell and other Cortezians are encouraged by the bold decision Judge Jackie Fulford -- an iconic Cortez family name, though no relation -- in favor of commercial mullet fishermen, who belong to the Wakulla Com

mercial Fisherman's Association.

That Attorney General Pam Bondi's office appealed on behalf of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission did not discourage Bell.

Nor did the FWC announcement it will continue to enforce the ban during the appeal process.

"Minimally, it has the issue back in people's minds," she said. "I think people are interested to see where it goes. They already are aware it was the wrong way to go, deciding politically how to manage our fisheries. Fisheries need to be managed continually, because they're always changing. But to ban something forever, something that makes not just the fish houses but the culture go away, something that was unique to Florida, that's wrong."

Cortez once had five fish houses, but now has just two -- A.P. Bell and Cortez Bait & Seafood. Small mom & pop fish houses all along Florida's southwest coast also went out of business.

"The feeling always was a grave injustice was done and one day it will be corrected," Bell said. "Maybe this is a step in that direction."

Larry Fulford sure hopes so.

"The judge is right," said the 62-year-old scion of the longtime Cortez fishing family. "Anything they do will help."

Yet he is cautious.

"They're not going to overturn it completely," he said. "It should be something grandfathered for fishermen who've been here two, three generations, fishing families up and down this coast for generations.

"But I doubt even that. When it comes right down to it, it's all about money and politics."

John Banyas, a Cortez fisherman all his life, echoed that.

"It'd be the way it should be, but we'll have to wait and see," said the 48-year-old owner of Cortez Bait & Seafood. "There's a viable resource out there that can be managed properly, but politics and money is what it boils down to."

That combination, he said, stacked the odds against Cortez and other fishing villages in the net ban battle.

"The state let us down, but they're always pushing Florida fresh seafood," Banyas said. "Everybody wants to eat it, but who's going to get it?"

Plum Taylor is keeping her fingers crossed this judge's ruling will give her descendents that opportunity.

"We need to have those nets for the younger generation," said the widow of Alcee Taylor, Cortez historian and keeper of the flame when it came to fighting the net ban. "It would be a good thing if we got the nets back. The economy and fishing industry would bubble."

This ruling and its potential for constituents has the attention of state Sen. Bill Galvano. The net ban took place before he took office in the state Legislature, but he knows its impact on them.

"I think it would be worthy to revisit the issue in light of the court's decision, and make sure the amendment and implementation of the rules that we're not both killing an industry and harming the environment in ways that were not intended," Galvano said. "Cortez Village is a rich part of our history in this region and the state. I will give them deference as we revisit these issues."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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