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By limiting net fishing, who wins, who loses?

Daphne Thorson is afraid of losing her business.

As the owner of Hatcher's Seafood in New Port Richey, Thorson says that passage of a constitutional amendment to limit net fishing in Florida waters would keep customers from continuing to shop at her market.

Hatcher's sells net-caught fish, which cost less than those captured with a less efficient hook and line. Customers shop at Hatcher's because its products are fresher than imported or chemically treated fish from northern waters. Passage of Amendment 3 in the Nov.

8 general election would cut the supply of inexpensive local catches, Thorson says, leaving the family business with no competitive advantage against the more convenient fish case in a grocery store.

Dave Markett is also worried, but he is thinking about what will happen to his business if the amendment doesn't pass. His Sportfishing Guide Services in Tampa works with 25 independent charter captains to take people on fishing excursions.

"Visitors to our area are thrilled to death to catch a few fish," Markett says. But where there is normal netting activity, he says, it is almost impossible for even a professional guide to catch anything of substance.

"If they go once and do not catch any fish, they'll just choose another area, maybe the Texas coast or the Georgia coast or the Carolinas _ someplace they can catch fish pretty much every time they go."

Florida's marine environment is worth a lot of money, particularly for those who depend on either commercial fishing or recreational fishing for their livelihoods.

Both sides of the contentious debate maintain that whichever way the vote goes, an enormous ripple effect will be felt beyond the businesses directly related to fishing and throughout the state economy.

Florida voters will be asked to decide whether to change the state Constitution to ban certain nets that many of the state's 7,000 commercial fishermen use to do their jobs.

Behind the ban is a coalition called the Save Our Sealife Committee, a group that says if commercial fishermen are not stopped, the future of state waters is in peril.

Commercial fishermen argue there are better ways to regulate fishing and protect the environment. They say there is no scientific basis for a ban that would affect them deeply in their wallets.

Loss of income, jobs

Opponents of the net-ban amendment depend largely on economic arguments to make their case.

"It's no different from a major manufacturing plant being lost," says Jerry Sansom, executive director of the Organized Fishermen of Florida. "The income and job loss _ and the trickle effect _ are greater.

"Only the biggest fishermen with the biggest boats and the biggest nets will be able to survive this thing," he says.

If the amendment passes, the direct impact on the commercial fishing industry would be a loss of $40-million annually, says Thomas J. Murray, a Lutz resource economist who has studied the issue and argues against the net ban.

Including the full channel through which the fish are processed, distributed and ultimately sold to consumers, Murray's figure expands far further to a $250-million loss.

In employment, Murray says the direct impact would be a loss of 8,300 jobs related to the harvesting of fish. Disproportionately affected, he says, would be at least 1,000 family fishing businesses.

Small businesses will be hurt because they won't have the flexibility, equipment or finances to attempt to move further offshore to see if they can continue to make a living, Sansom says.

But big businesses would be affected as well. Sigma International, an international wholesaler of fish and shrimp, would consider closing plants in St. Petersburg and Cortez, which together employ about 165 people.

"We have millions of dollars in plant infrastructure tied up in this business and absolutely no compensation if we lose," says Daniel Woodson, vice president of the St. Petersburg-based company.

The ripple employment effect of a net ban would be 25,000 jobs statewide, Murray says, including wholesalers, truckers and retailers that distribute fish. "It's a very significant employment cost," Murray says.

Smaller fishing communities _ including Cedar Key, Tarpon Springs and Cortez _ would be particularly hard hit, according to net-ban amendment opponents. Fishing businesses locate in these towns because they are farther from the development that diminishes the fish populations, Sansom says. The problem when fishing jobs go away is that there are few alternative employment options.

"There are productive fishermen in their 50s, 60s and 70s who have no opportunities elsewhere," Murray says. "Their only option will be the government dole."

Economic arguments against the amendment can be made for consumers as well, Murray says. Low-income consumers disproportionately purchase certain net-caught fish, such as mullet.

"Much of it is purchased with food stamps," he says. If the fish is not available, those customers will have a difficult time finding alternative seafood that is fresh and affordable.

"Preservation of resources'

DOA Lures, a manufacturer of fishing lures in Palm City on the state's Atlantic coast, would likely head for Texas if the net-ban amendment doesn't pass. The company employs 10 people full time.

"I'll move my business from Florida," says DOA owner Mark Nichols. "I love Florida for the diversity of fishing and water quality. I'd rather stay in Florida. But I have to look at it from a business point of view."

Nichols says Florida's lack of protection of its fisheries is making his work more difficult.

DOA regularly takes people out on the water to showcase its products. "I want to put them on fish consistently," Nichols says. "To demonstrate the product, you catch fish with it."

Tourism is big business in Florida, and a major component of it is sport fishing.

Recreational fishing is far more valuable economically than the commercial net-fishing business, according to a report prepared for the Florida Conservation Association, a group composed mostly of sport anglers.

For Florida to remain a national leader in tourism, the state needs to attract people with natural amenities as well as theme parks, writes report author Robert B. Ditton of Texas A


M University. Ditton teaches graduate courses in the wildlife and fisheries sciences department.

A report for the Florida Sea Grant College Program showed about 16.5 percent of the general tourist population engaged in saltwater fishing sometime in the previous year.

Tourist saltwater anglers spend $110 daily for lodging, food, rentals, bait and other items and services related to fishing, according to the report from Frederick W. Bell of the economics department at Florida State University.

That translated to $1.3-billion in expenditures in 1991, according to the report. And that spending was estimated to support 23,518 retail and service jobs and wages that year of about $235-million.

Total annual expenditures for Florida's resident marine anglers is estimated at another $1.3-billion, according to a separate Florida Sea Grant report, bringing the total estimated economic impact to $2.6-billion.

"Our chief argument is the preservation of resources," says Bill Coletti, campaign director of the Save our Sealife Committee.

"Technology has outpaced the resource," Coletti says of the commercial fishing industry's capabilities in finding fish using a variety of high-tech gear.

Indeed, Ditton tracked a decline in the number of saltwater anglers between 1985 and 1989.

Perceived low catch rates among anglers related to an increase in commercial catches may have been responsible for the declines in recreational fishing, Ditton writes.

"If this intense pressure is continued, the commercial fishing industry will fish themselves out of business and ruin the Florida environment," Coletti says. "It's an economic and environmental disaster."