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Net fishermen cast wary eye on uncertain future

Monday looked like a fine day for mullet fishing.

The clouds that dumped a foot of rain on Florida had drifted off. Soon the mullet hiding in the watery roots of mangrove islands would ride the tidal waters to the flats and fatten up on algae.

So Randy Nelson set out to catch some fish, before a new Florida law transforms the skills of a lifetime into a petty crime.

The tide turned against him in November. In a statewide referendum campaign, net fishermen were accused of depleting marine resources and ousted from Florida waters by 72 percent of voters.

At midnight, a new amendment to the state Constitution will outlaw nets that snag mullet by their gills and restrict the legal size of other nets.

It also terminates a fishing tradition that has persisted in some families through five generations.

The 19th-century pioneers of this trade hauled nets from waters so thick with fish that one visitor to Tampa Bay reported "they impede the passage of boats." In this generation, their descendants watched the rising shadows of waterfront condominiums eclipse the fishing villages they once knew.

They now face the final days of an era, bitter and bewildered, still disbelieving they could be voted out of a livelihood.

Randy Nelson knows no other livelihood. He quit high school in 1977 to fish. On the water, he spent 15 years studying the movements of fish and tides around Pinellas County before he finally made good money with his nets.

Now he ranks among the top gill netters. Of 6,300 licensed commercial fishermen in Florida who put nets in the water, he was one of only 268 who reported pulling out more than $30,000 worth of fish last year.

He has two fishing boats, $20,000 worth of nets, a new Chevy truck, a new island home on Terra Ceia built with a $105,000 loan and no idea where to turn for work next Monday.

"I keep saying to myself, "what am I going to do?' I don't know," he said.

He backs the Chevy down a ramp at the southern tip of Pinellas County and unloads his smaller boat.

Thanks to Russia and Japan, "commercial net fishing" conjures images of giant trawlers sucking life from the sea. By comparison, Florida's mullet trade is a humble business.

Nelson boards a nameless skiff hardly bigger than a rowboat. Its gray paint is peeling. Water seeps through a fresh crack across its bottom. He loads a battered cooler and a day's supply of ice. He tosses in a chipped plastic shovel to bail the leak.

In the rear he carries 600 yards of nets in three mesh sizes, so mullet that bounce off his small mesh may get caught swimming through a larger monofilament hole.

Before he can step off the dock, the law arrives.

Pinellas County Deputy John Pyros, a marine officer in the Sheriff's Office, asks for Nelson's fishing license. Citation pad in hand, he applies a tape measure to the mesh. "Why do you got three sizes on one net?" he asks.

"There's three nets in there," Nelson says.

Pyros decides to give Nelson "a little lecture" in advance about avoiding protected seagrass zones. "Have you fished here before?" he asks.

Nelson shoots a blank look. "Every day," he says.

Pyros finds a violation. The skiff's gill net number, GN362, has faded on one side of the boat and is not painted anywhere on top where patrolling helicopters could spot it. He issues a warning, then lets Nelson go.

In a year of hostility between recreational fishermen who put the net ban on the ballot and commercial fishermen who fought it, Nelson has found the word "RAPIST" spray-painted across his little skiff and the tires of his boat trailer flattened.

This is what pains him most. "Everyone just looks at you like you're a hardened criminal out here on the waterways," he says.

He won't be painting new gill net numbers on this boat. Or repairing the leak. Come Saturday, he will have no use for a worn flat-bottomed skiff designed to steer with 400 pounds of lead-weighted nets in the back.

"I'm gonna take this boat and throw it away. Or give it away," he says.

The law

Florida will become the fifth state to outlaw some types of net fishing in its coastal waters _ and the second, after California, to place such prohibitions in its constitution.

The amendment forbids the use of gill nets and other entangling nets within 9 miles of its Gulf coast and 3 miles of its Atlantic coast. Other nets larger than 500 square feet are forbidden within 3 miles of the Gulf coast and 1 mile of the Atlantic coast; this effectively bans the purse seine, a large net used to encircle bait fish, within those zones.

The new law will be launched through a tangle of legal disputes and regulatory confusion.

Commercial fishermen have filed suit, claiming the ban is unconstitutional. Counties dependent on fishing are claiming their netters work for "governmental purposes," an exemption permitted by the amendment.

On the administrative front, budget officials are scrambling to find the $20-million that legislators promised to fishermen who agree to sell their nets next week.

A new law requires gill netters who own boats big enough to venture 9 miles out in federal waters to carry a transit permit and keep moving. But the permits haven't been printed and distributed, so that law won't be enforced for another month.

The Marine Fisheries Commission, which writes rules for fishing in Florida's coastal waters, has no rules to implement the net ban.

It proposed some that restricted possession of affected gear, but those were rejected by a state hearing officer. So the Florida Marine Patrol officers sent to enforce the ban this weekend will have no authority to stop a commercial fisherman from carrying a gill net, and no regulatory guide but the amendment itself.

In the absence of a rule book, "we'll be doing something we've never done before, which is writing a citation for violating the Constitution of the state of Florida," Maj. Bruce Buckson said.

A few fishermen have said they will defy the ban and keep fishing. There have been rumors that others will protest the loss of their livelihood by blocking waterways with nets this Fourth of July weekend.

In response, the Marine Patrol is switching to emergency mode for a week _ 12-hour shifts, no days off.

Its officers plan to issue misdemeanor citations to anyone caught with fish in an illegal net, and to seize the catch. They do not, however, plan to perform the soggy and time-consuming job of seizing large nets.

What this net ban will accomplish and who it will affect are matters of unending debate.

Florida Audubon Society vice president Charles Lee recalls watching mullet runs as a kid with a fishing pole on North Miami Beach piers.

When they massed in autumn to spawn at sea, "there were schools of mullet a mile long. The water literally turned black," he says. And it boiled with the predatory strikes of mackerel and bluefish, which he hooked.

Those mullet runs are mere memories now. But Lee figures the removal of gill nets is bound to benefit their numbers, along with their predators and fish-eating birds such as osprey. "Those fish have been prematurely pulled out of the food chain."

The number of mullet boats in Florida waters each autumn grew with the demand for their eggs, a high-priced delicacy in Taiwan. The Florida Marine Research Institute estimates this fleet has managed to net five of every six pregnant mullet swimming out to spawn at sea.

Yet some marine biologists and environmentalists remain profoundly uncomfortable with Florida's decision to solve a regulatory problem by shutting down fisheries in the Constitution.

"I felt it was a choice between inadequate regulation at the moment and bad government. We chose bad government," said Rich Paul, who manages the Audubon sanctuaries in Tampa Bay.

How many people will be out of work as a result?

Marine Fisheries Commission economist Bob Palmer figures the population of fishermen who rely solely on nets for a living can't be that large.

Statewide, less than a thousand license holders reported netting more than $10,000 worth of fish last year, he says, and 205 accounted for almost half the total catch.

Commercial fishermen say those numbers fail to tell their story.

In Cortez, a historic fishing village where the scent of fried mullet still hangs in the air, "I know guys that are living on 10, 12, 15 thousand a year," said Mark Taylor, whose family has fished its waters for a century. "Their wives work a little bit. They just don't live flamboyantly."

Jerry Sansom, the leader of the Organized Fishermen of Florida, predicts the net ban will leave as many as 10,000 skippers, crewmen and seafood workers jobless.

Indirectly, its effects may ripple throughout Florida's fishing business. Mullet heads are used as crab bait, and many commercial and charter fishing boats bait their hooks with fish caught in purse seines.

But unless a bait shortage occurs, shoppers who visit supermarket seafood counters next month may not notice a change. They sell fish that were hooked far from Florida shores or raised on fish farms. One wholesale supplier to two supermarket chains estimated that only 8 percent of his fish come from local nets.

Now what?

Randy Nelson stands on the bow of his boat, steering it with two lengths of PVC pipe extended from the throttle, scanning the shallow waters around Fort DeSoto Park for mullet.

Suddenly he drops his anchor. The nets reel out _ 200, 400, 600 yards _ as he circles the boat in a shrinking spiral. The lead weights fall to the bottom. A vertical curtain forms.

Nelson is a muscular, strong-jawed man who could pass for a fitness instructor instead of a fisherman. Working alone, he hauls in the net by hand.

Gingerly, he breaks off the barbs of catfish snagged in the net and tosses them back. The mullet go in the cooler. The pinfish he feeds to a chorus of seven pelicans who follow his movements, raising their wings and puffing their pouches at every gesture.

When the last yard of net is aboard, there are 100 pounds of mullet and two butterfish in his cooler. He peers in. "Sixty bucks," he says. "Better than nothing."

Monday, it turned out, was not such a fine day for fishing. He caught no more mullet. Tuesday he landed 260 pounds, Wednesday 550 pounds in a single strike of the nets.

As to the future . . .

He thumbs through the possibilities. He has stashed plenty of frozen mullet for crab bait. He could apply for the $250-a-week unemployment benefits the state offered. He could try to borrow $25,000 for a new boat and become a fishing guide. He could try casting the hand-thrown nets exempted by the amendment all day long, and hope to haul up enough mullet for the mortgage payments.

His wife has a good job at Florida Power, he said. "Thank God for that."

Their new house was being built when the net ban passed. It's a beautiful house, three stories tall, with an observation deck that looks across Terra Ceia Island to the only place of employment Randy Nelson has ever known.

In the living room, his wife, Donna, pops in a tape. She relaxes on their new beige carpet. Soothing piano music floats across the room. She sums up her thoughts about the future in a word.


Limits on netting in Florida waters

Shrimp trawls, seines more than 500 sq. ft. permitted 1-3 miles

Shrimp trawls, seines more than 500 sq.ft. permitted 3-9 miles++

Shrimp trawls, seines less than 500 sq. ft. nearshore and inshore Florida waters _ permitted inside 3 miles

Shrimp trawls, seines less than 500 sq.ft. nearshore and inshore waters _ permitted inside 1 mile

Exception: Big Bend region closed areas local rules / regulation may still apply

No gill or other entangling nets in state waters+

+ State waters: Gulf 0-9 miles / Atlantic 0-3 miles