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Florida Senate Targets Bear Poaching, Shark Finning, Invasive Species

A new proposal, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson R-St. Augustine, would ban the import, export and sale of shark fins, an idea that has not passed in past sessions.

Florida is getting closer to imposing stiffer fines for bear poaching and expanding rules against shark “finning.”

The Senate Rules Committee on Monday approved bills to address those issues, sending the measures to the full Senate. The committee also backed proposals that would expand the use of drones to help fight invasive species and designate coastal regions of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties as the state’s newest aquatic preserve.

The proposals were among a wide array of bills that got their final committee reviews Monday, making them eligible to appear on the Senate floor before the scheduled March 13 end of the annual legislative session.

RELATED: Florida Fishermen Fret As Shark Fin Sale Ban Moves Forward

The shark finning proposal (SB 680) would expand a 2017 law that increased penalties for people who remove fins from sharks and discard the rest of the sharks into the ocean.

The new proposal, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson R-St. Augustine, would ban the import, export and sale of shark fins, an idea that has not passed in past sessions. Shark fins are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia.

The proposal didn’t fully ease concerns of the commercial fishing industry, though it would allow people with federal shark fishing permits and seafood dealers that harvest and possess shark products to continue engaging in import and export trade involving shark fins through Jan. 1, 2025.

“I don’t remember when the Senate has put an expiration date on an industry before and had us come back and get a pardon, if you will, to keep doing something we’re not doing wrong,” said Jerry Sansom, a lobbyist for the Organized Fishermen of Florida.

Hutson said he will continue to work on a provision that would direct the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA, to determine the economic impact of the commercial shark fishing industry and if the Jan. 1, 2025, “sunset” needs to be repealed.

“There is a lot of science and data out there that both proponents and opponents have brought,” Hutson said.

The overall proposal was pushed by the national advocacy group Shark Allies and Guy Harvey Enterprises, which teamed up to spotlight shark-based tourism in Florida.

RELATED: Florida House Acts To Stiffen Penalties On Bear Poaching

The measure that seeks to curb poaching black bears out of season (SB 688) is focused on a proliferation of bears being illegally killed for their gallbladders.

Bear bile, secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, can bring in hundreds to thousands of dollars on the black market, where it is promoted as a cure for numerous ills.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, was pushed by Bear Warriors United, based in Seminole County, and has the support of the Humane Society of the United States.

The proposal would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to kill a bear or possess a freshly killed bear during a closed season, up from a second-degree misdemeanor, increasing fines, and require the forfeiture of any Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission licenses or permits for three years.

A subsequent offense would make the violator permanently ineligible for any commission license or permit.

The forfeiture of a license could cross state lines through reciprocity agreements with 47 other states, Wright said.

The bill also would impose a third-degree felony charge on people who possess for sale or sell bears taken outside of a designated hunting season.

READ MORE: Invasive Species Stories On WUSF

The drone proposal (SB 822), sponsored by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, seeks to allow non-law enforcement employees of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to operate aerial drones for eradication efforts of invasive plants and animals on public lands.

The proposal would also allow the Florida Forest Service to use drones to mitigate the threat of wildfires on public lands.

The state restricts the use of drones by people and government agencies for surveillance. Law enforcement is also prohibited, with certain exceptions, from using drones to gather evidence or other information.

The creation of the “Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve” along Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties (SB 1042) would lead to restrictions on such things as dredging, seawall construction and sale of submerged lands in the area.

Albritton said the proposal would protect about 400,000 acres of sea grass habitat.

The preserve also would require the governor and Cabinet to adopt rules that don’t unreasonably interfere with activities such as sport fishing, commercial fishing, boating and swimming. The management of the preserve also isn’t supposed to infringe upon the rights of property owners along or within the new zone.

The House has already given unanimous support to the crackdown on bear poaching (HB 327) and the expanded use of drones (HB 659).

Measures focused on shark finning (HB 401) and aquatic preserve designation (HB 1061) have completed the committee process and await appearances on the House floor.