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Net fishermen cast wary eye on the 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 fish before a new Florida law transformed 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 outlawed nets that snag mullet by their gills and restricted the legal size of other nets.

It also terminated 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 the Tampa Bay area reported "they impede the passage of boats." In this generation, their descendants watched the rising shadows of waterfront condominiums eclipse the fishing villages they knew.

These were the final days of an era. Bitter and bewildered, net fishermen such as Nelson still can't believe they were voted out of a livelihood.

Randy Nelson knows no other way to make a living. 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 on Monday.

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

The law

Florida is 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 is being 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.

But Friday, Wakulla County lost its bid to escape the ban when a judge ruled that voters are entitled to have the constitutional amendment put in effect.

A day earlier, the same judge denied a bid for a statewide injunction to hold off enforcement of the net ban.

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.

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. Others say they 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.

In addition, Gov. Chiles this week threatened to call out the National Guard. to help with enforcement.

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

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 in Manatee County where the scent of fried mullet 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 for mullet in the shallow waters around Fort De Soto Park, at the mouth of Boca Ciega Bay in southern Pinellas.

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.

"Scared."

Net ban basics

The basics of the net ban, which took effect today:

Outlawed

Gill and entangling nets, which snare fish in the meshes, in any state waters. State waters extend 9 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico and 3 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

All nets, including shrimp trawls, seines and cast nets, of more than 500 square feet in near shore and in shore waters. Near shore and in shore waters extend 3 miles in the gulf and 1 mile in the Atlantic.

Still legal

Shrimp trawls and seines of less than 500 square feet in near shore and in shore waters _ out to 3 miles in the gulf and 1 mile in the Atlantic.

Shrimp trawls and seines of more than 500 square feet in other state waters _ 3-9 miles out in the gulf and 1-3 miles out in the Atlantic.

Penalties

First conviction: up to 60 days in prison, $100 to $500 fine, or both.

Second conviction within 12 months: up to 6 months in prison, $250 to $1,000 fine, or both.

More than 100 pounds of finfish _ additional $5 per pound.

More than 1,000 pounds of finfish _ additional penalty equal to wholesale value of fish.

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