Gulf fishermen feud over net 'curtains'
Gillnetting, still allowed in Alabama, is the target of sports fishing industry and conservationists.
OFF DAUPHIN ISLAND, ALA.
A steep chop berating his plywood skiff, Greg Williams scans the turquoise waters of the Mississippi Sound for signs of fish – whether silvery bullets hopping on the surface, a diving pelican, or an all-out sea boil.Skip to next paragraph
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Using just his senses and the old- fashioned method of hand-hauling nets, Mr. Williams is a hunter of such prowess that he single-handedly strikes fear in the hearts of fishery conservationists. That's why, one by one, all the Gulf states except Alabama have, in essence, banned the use of the long curtains of mesh nets around their estuaries.
Now Alabama faces renewed pressure to pull its nets once and for all from state waters. As it does, the plight of the Gulf coast's last group of gill-netters is raising a question about the identity of America's coastlines: Are these net-haulers guardians of a traditional way, or are they outlaws who are robbing the ocean of resources and undermining the larger economic good? The answer will help determine how traditional fishing communities fit into the changing demographics of the Gulf Shore.
"What we're doing is trying to negotiate with fishermen from both sides, the commercial fishermen who use this as a livelihood and have done this their whole lives and the sportsmen who say, 'You're out there killing all these fish you don't have to kill,' " says Vern Minton, director of the Alabama Department of Marine Resources.
The gear used by the gillnetters of Alabama's tiny coast is part of the problem. Gill nets – some as long as 2,400 feet, hanging to the bottom of shallow Mobile Bay – can "strike" specific schools of fish or be "set" overnight to capture wildlife indiscriminately.
A common dockside anecdote in Alabama's tiny bootheel tells of gill-netters throwing dead game fish like speckled trout – which they aren't allowed to catch – to the pelicans.
Reports that Florida's game and forage fish stocks have rebounded since Florida voted to ban gill nets in 1994 have caused mounting pressure, including a series of tough radio ads, on Alabama to stop the gill-netters and preserve recreational fishing.
"If you take the value of Alabama's recreational fishery and you overlay it with the liability of the gill-net fishery, then common sense and good marine science bubble up to say, 'This is foolish,' " says Ed Williamson, executive director of the Alabama Coastal Conservation Association, which lobbies on behalf of recreational fishermen.
Alabama's 120 gill-netters – of whom only 10 are fulltime – catch about 4 million pounds a year of mullet, mackerel, skipjack, and other species. That's a herring in the bucket compared with the 2 billion pounds of fish the five Gulf states haul out of the water every year by other means, causing gill-netter Williams to wonder: "Are 20 boats really going to take all the fish in the Gulf of Mexico?"
Despite their small profile, gill-netters cut a large swath, critics say. The newest catchphrase is "localized depletion" – when gill-netters in black-painted skiffs catch all the fish at night and leave day-trippers empty-handed.