CHAUVIN, LA. — NAILED to a cypress tree on Route 56, Wilbert Kramer's plywood sign is hard to miss. It reads in drippy green paint: ''I Support Commercial Fishing: A Louisiana Tradition.''
Here in Bayou Country, where $20 buys a sackful of crawfish and children ride to school in yellow ''school boats,'' Mr. Kramer's statement seems superfluous.
But almost since the Acadian or Cajun people arrived in this swampy basin 200 years ago, their waterborne way of life has seen a slow decline. Now, it faces one of its toughest challenges yet.
Backed by the state's 300,000 recreational fishermen, Louisiana lawmakers this week approved a bill that would drastically limit the use of gill nets. Already prohibited or restricted in other Gulf Coast states, these controversial nets have been targeted by conservationists as killers of fish and birds. But the 1,200 commercial fishermen who, like Kramer, rely on gill netting for income, say the move could be disastrous.
The debate in Baton Rouge will decide the future of one of the world's richest fisheries.
If Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) signs the bill, Louisiana's commercial fishermen could join those in New England and the Pacific Northwest in a fading industry and a seafaring culture that predates America.
While anecdotal evidence shows fewer fish are being caught as more fishermen ply the bayou, state biologists say gill nets are not threatening to seriously deplete stocks of redfish, mullet, and speckled trout. This skirmish is the latest in a longstanding feud between the sport and commerical fishermen competing for a share of Louisiana's underwater bounty.
Wearing T-shirts that read: ''No nets, no seafood,'' commercial fishermen and their families descended on the state capital Tuesday to plead their case. Pointing to a 1993 estimate by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, they argue that recreational fishermen land four times as many speckled trout every year. Besides, they say, the number of commercial fishermen has plummeted, while each year the state sells record numbers of sport licenses.
''This is not about conservation,'' Manny Fernandez, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Seafood Management Council testified last week. ''It's about politics and greed.''
Long, narrow, and made of plastic mesh, gill nets are anchored in the water like underwater fences. Fish swim through the mesh holes and become trapped when their gills slip through. Fishermen then pull up the nets and collect the fish.
Gill net critics
But critics say fishermen often leave these nets unattended, letting the fish they catch rot. Sometimes, opponents say, dolphins and amphibious birds get trapped in gill nets.
The bill, which now heads to the Louisiana Senate, would ban gill netting for all but six weeks of the year, and allow it only for catching mullet: a fish prized for bait and caviar that cannot be caught with a rod and reel. The bill would also tack a $3 surcharge on all sport fishing licenses to compensate commercial fishermen.
The bill would bring Louisiana in line with Texas and Florida, which have banned gill nets completely, and with Alabama and Mississippi, which have enacted strict limits.
But commercial fishermen here say Louisiana is not like other states. Fed by the Mississippi River, its bayous and estuaries are one of the world's most bountiful and diverse fish habitats, one they say can always rebound.
In addition, they say, fishing is an economic mainstay. Before the oilfields sprouted offshore, fishing, crabbing, shrimping, and trapping -- and the processing plants and marinas that sprang up to support them -- were the lifeblood of old Cajun towns.
If the ban passes, says Bob Bergeron, a state representative from Chauvin, it will ''destroy a way of life, something that makes Louisiana special and different from the rest of the country.''
But even lifelong fishermen agree that something must be done. Russel Authement, a sport fisherman who has been plying the bayou for 56 years, remembers how five years ago, overfishing led to a serious decline in the population of redfish in Louisiana waters, one they are still recovering from.
Despite catch and size limits imposed on redfish and trout, Mr. Authement says, there are not nearly as many fish as there used to be. Opening his battered cooler, he shows off his day's catch: three speckled trout. Add up his expenses, he says, including gas, bait, and insurance, and it works out to $28 per fish.
While Authement says he does not recommend a ban on gill nets, ''pretty soon there won't be any fish left to yell about.''
But other sport fishermen, especially those from out-of-state, are less apt to compromise. Fred Cantrell, a real estate broker from Georgia who owns a camp near Chauvin, says the nets ought to be eliminated.
Mr. Cantrell, like many sport fishermen, is a member of the Gulf Coast Conservation Association (GCCA), a group that lobbies on behalf of sport fishermen and has become a dirty word in bayou country. Jeff Angers, the GCCA executive director, argued this week that ''the majority of Louisiana voters want to ban gill nets -- period.''
Out on the bayou, tensions are high. Some commercial fishermen vow that if a ban in enacted, they will block canals with their boats, and shut down bait shops.
Standing on his 30-foot trawler, ''Lady Bridget,'' Wilbert Kramer says he can't believe the government would deny a livelihood to the few remaining commercial fishermen in order to please sport fishermen, many of whom are affluent.
''It's hard to understand where a fisherman comes from,'' he says. ''We've suffered so long to get where we're at, and now we're struggling just to hold onto our houses and our boats, and it hurts. I bet they would be happier if we gave up fishing and stood by the side of the road and sold drugs. At least then we'd be off the water.''