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No. 3: Vote to limit nets

A lot of emotion has gone into the battle over the proposed constitutional amendment to ban large commercial fishing nets from state waters.

Sport anglers paint netters as willful despoilers of the environment. The netters counterclaim that environmental damage, if it even exists, is caused by pollution, erratic rainfall and developers, not by their fishing techniques.

There is plenty of disingenuousness on both sides. The netters claim sport anglers want to keep everything for themselves, although sport fishing at its most furious couldn't bag specimens in the numbers the giant nets do.

In turn, sport fishing interests say a net ban would return Florida waters to pristine conditions, an impossibility given the preponderance of habitat-destroying coastal development, much of it built to attract sport anglers.

The weight of the evidence suggests commercial fishing boats deploying nets hundreds of feet long destroy marine species that aren't targeted but happen to get in the way, including manatees, dolphins and sea turtles, and seriously deplete fisheries.

The mullet populations in Tampa Bay, for example, are in difficulty. Since the bay is cleaner than it's been for years, over-fishing by netters is the only reasonable explanation. It's a problem not only for people who look to mullet as bait fish and food, but for a variety of bird species that rely on mullet as a major link in their food chains.

This country already has seen destruction of major fisheries in the Georges Bank area of the North Atlantic and in salmon waters of the Pacific Northwest. Florida fisheries aren't yet damaged that badly, but action must come before the damage grows. The net ban should be adopted, and we urge Florida voters to approve it.

The saddest aspect of this debate is that the issue never should have had to take form as an amendment to the state constitution. The anti-netting faction has tried every other avenue for change. They've gone to the state Cabinet and the governor for relief and gotten nothing. They've gone to the Legislature with similar results. They've gone to the Marine Fisheries Commission, which proposed modest limitations on netting that the governor and Cabinet killed. A constitutional amendment is the last recourse.

But once the nets are gone from state waters, sport anglers should move aggressively to clean up their own act. The careless and uninformed among them kill and maim thousands of fish, marine mammals and birds each year with discarded fishing line, lead weights and trash.

If those behind the net ban put half the energy and resources into education programs that they put into the constitutional amendment, the state, its fishing enthusiasts and wildlife would be better off for it.

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