Florida Net Ban Leaves Some Fishers Adrift

Coastal states eye fight between old-salt fishermen and well-heeled sportfishers over gill-netting practices

A member of the Florida Marine Patrol sits patiently in his boat, scanning the inky horizon with night-vision goggles as a helicopter whirrs overhead.

The patrol is looking for contraband on Florida's inshore waters. But the search is not for drug runners, it is for fishermen.

Since the state passed a law against catching fish in gill nets, a few fishermen have defiantly taken to the sea under cover of night, using the outlawed nets and their own night-vision goggles.

This high-tech war for fish such as the goldish-brown mullet is an extreme example of a growing row over gill netting around the country. Backed by recreational fishermen and environmentalists, a handful of states have passed harsh laws against gill netters. And if Florida's measure holds up to a legal challenge against it, other states could jump on board, imperiling the practice from North Carolina to Alaska.

From the environmental standpoint, the ban seems to be working, as many fish targeted by gill netting have rebounded. But that's small comfort for Florida's fishing industry, which has been left adrift.

"It has been a very difficult situation for a lot of old-time fishing companies in the state," says Cecil Lane, manager of Hudgins Seafood in Fort Pierce, Fla., which was founded in 1911. "It has hurt an awful lot of good people."

An estimated 15,000 gill netters lost their livelihood as a result of the ban. Some netters received partial compensation in a state-run program to purchase and destroy gill nets. But fisherman complain that it didn't pay enough to finance the transition into another line of work.

Others switched to shrimping or clam farming. Still others got creative - instead of gill nets they tied plastic tarps and shower curtains together and dragged them through the water. Florida lawmakers responded by outlawing tarp and shower-curtain fishing.

"Some people thought that when this net ban passed that [gill net] fishermen would go away and that would be it. But people can be resourceful. And fishermen have families to feed," says Lee Schlesinger, spokesman for the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission.

The net ban is primarily aimed at eliminating nets from inshore waters - those close to land - where fish are perceived to be more vulnerable.

Netters disagree, saying that as long as fish stocks are monitored closely, there should be more than enough for both commercial and recreational fisherman.

Some netters also claim that the law itself is unconstitutional to begin with. It took effect on July 1, 1995 - after 72 percent of voters in a Florida referendum agreed to ban the nets. Mr. Lane, who is also chairman of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, has filed suit to overturn the ban on grounds that a public referendum is an unconstitutional means to, in effect, banish an entire segment of the fishing industry from state waters.

Such action should have been taken by the state legislature rather than a direct vote by the people amending the state constitution, he says. And he adds that referendums can be heavily influenced by whoever spends the most on advertising.

"You cannot allow ... a well-heeled majority to subjugate the rights of a minority," Lane says. "That is a scary issue."

The suit is pending before Florida's Supreme Court and a decision could come as early as Thursday. If that action fails, the netters are also hoping that a constitutional revision commission - which meets every 20 years - will recommend the net ban amendment to the state constitution be tossed during a November 1998 special ballot.

Yet supporters of the net ban say Florida's constitution is not like the United States Constitution - it includes many special provisions similar to the net ban.

The constitutional amendment that bans nets is an example of how voters can take the reins of government into their own hands when elected officials fail to act in the state's best interests, says Ted Forsgren of the Coastal Conservation Association in Tallahassee, Fla. "There needs to be something in the constitution to remind the government that the power does reside with the people," he says.

As for the impact the ban is having on the all-important mullet, no one is really sure how big the schools are. But the anecdotal evidence is impressive. Last autumn, a fishing guide near Bradenton, Fla., encountered what he called the largest school of mullet he had ever seen in his life - described as acre upon acre of fish.

Mullet isn't the only species of fish directly helped by the net ban. Recreational fishermen are also reporting larger numbers of spotted sea trout, bluefish, pompano, and Spanish mackerel - all fish that were targeted by netters prior to the ban.

Sport fishermen are hopeful that the establishment of large schools of mullet will lead to a population boom among Florida's most popular game fish, since mullet is a staple of many fish diets. It is also a favorite of bottlenose dolphins, the friendly and intelligent marine mammals that inhabit all coastal areas of the state.

Marine biologists at Eckert College are studying a possible link between the rise in available mullet and a possible corresponding increase in the larger-than-usual number of dolphin calves born this past year in the Tampa Bay-Clearwater area.

"It is doing better than the net ban supporters ever anticipated in terms of fisheries recovery," says Mr. Forsgren, referring to the impact of the net ban. "Just the overall fish abundance has exceeded everyone's expectations."

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