Gulf fishermen feud over net 'curtains'

Gillnetting, still allowed in Alabama, is the target of sports fishing industry and conservationists.

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.

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?"

A shadow fishery?

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.

Critics say the more than 20unattended – and thus illegal – nets found by law enforcement last year show the depth of what many suspect is an illegal shadow fishery.

Experts add that improvements in mesh quality have made gill nets much more effective today than when Christ told his disciples to cast their nets on the other side.

"[The Gulf is] like a lot of resources: We tend to see them every day and we say they're inexhaustible. But is that true?" asks John Dindo, assistant director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a state-run research center. Inshore net-fishing is now testing that theory to a dangerous level, he says.

Law enforcement officials say Alabama avoided a net ban in 1995 by passing new regulations that closed some corners of Mobile Bay where mullet congregate and regulated mesh size so that fish have a chance to breed at least twice before growing large enough to catch.

Thousand-dollar fines and the potential for permanent license revocation for misbehavior have stopped most indiscriminate practices, officials say.

Today, most full-time gillnetters "round-haul" by encircling schools visible above the water, which means there's little chance of accidentally catching game fish. For the most part, gill-netters are catching the same amount of mullet and mackerel today as 10 years ago, a hint to state officials that the fishery is stable.

"The real question is: Are the [stocks] healthy under the current harvest?" says Mr. Minton from Alabama's fishery management. "We believe they are [under the current system]. This is conservation, not preservation."

Rival fishing methods

Part of the issue is the value equation for the waterfront: For recreational fishermen, the fish are worth 10 times more in the water than hauled to market. The gillnet industry is worth about $2 million a year while recreational fishermen – some 110,000 license-holders in Alabama alone – contribute a whopping $440 million to the state's annual economy, according to CCA.

Yet recreational fishing presents its own problems for the estuary's health, experts say.

"Gill-netters aren't saints. But some people say recreational fishing is benign and it's not," says Andrew Rosenberg, a fishery policy expert at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "It increases coastal development [that destroys habitat] and it can contribute to major fishing mortality on some stocks. That community has its own denial going on."

Gill-net fishermen like Williams work on nature's clock. The 40-something grandfather knows that he and his fishing dog Dusty ply a controversial trade, but he prefers to talk reverently about spotting skipjack schools at night by the streaks they make through the white phosphorescence glowing below.

What's at stake, he says, is not only his livelihood, but the only job that has ever made him happy.

"This is a well-regulated fishery that works," he says. "But unless you're out here every day beating on these waves, you don't know that. You only know what people tell you."

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