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Lifelong fisherman tears at net ban

By noon everyone in tiny Panacea knew what Jonas Porter had done.

A lifelong fisherman, Porter slid his 24-foot boat in the water Saturday morning and set out into Dickerson Bay. Just as he had done a thousand times before, and his father had done before him, he threaded a long gill net into the choppy water.

For Porter it was his way of making a living. On Saturday it became illegal. So Porter, 59, was cited by the Florida Marine Patrol for violating the state's new constitutional ban on large fishing nets, gill nets and entangling nets.

"I caught a few fish," he said hours later, acknowledging that he had intended also to get caught himself, to test the new law. "We're going to take it to court and see," said Porter, who was fishing with his cousin Raymond "Scrunchy" Porter. "I just feel like they violated our civil rights."

The new law bans all gill nets in Florida waters, and bans nets of more than 500 square feet within 3 miles of the gulf coast and 1 mile of the Atlantic coast. Porter was charged with using a gill net in state waters, which could result in a 60-day jail term plus a $500 fine.

Porter finds nothing but sympathy and cheerleading in the small Panhandle fishing towns with lovely names like Panacea and Carrabelle. People here wonder how their lives could have gotten in such perilous straits, how they will live now if they can't fish in the way they know.

A net 5 feet deep and 100 feet long might seem big to landlubbers chowing down on a seafood platter. The commercial fishermen scoff at it.

"You cannot catch mullet with 500 square feet," said Ron Brobst, standing next to a ship's store at Rock Landing where the marine patrol cited Porter. Another fisherman remarked that you can catch mullet, the main catch the fishermen pull in from the shallow bay. "You might get up one of these creeks and catch a mess to eat," was all Brobst concedes.

Across U.S. 98 from the landing, Levi Thomas dressed fish and wondered how long he would be in business. He is the third generation to fish and run the seafood store. Some of his neighbors and friends are upset.

"That's the only way they've ever had to make a living," he said, "and they don't have the education to go do anything else. Just like me. This is all I've ever done. My whole entire family has never done anything else."

About six years ago he tried a job in a Tallahassee plant that made valve lifters for Ford and General Motors.

"I just couldn't get used to it," he said, whacking the heads off mullet, butterfish and sea trout. "I was used to doing my own thing. I was born and raised in the seafood business."

While the net ban may hurt the commercial fishing industry all over the state, the new law's effect is being felt even more severely in Franklin and Wakulla counties.

Here the life is fishing, timber, more fishing. There is not much in the way of tourism; the big wide campers lumbering along U.S. 98, a picturesque coastal road, are mostly on the way to somewhere else. There are no real recreational beaches, no high-rise condos to house northern transplants, no golf resorts or theme parks.

The people have a history here, a family tree with roots sunk deep in the black North Florida ground, branches cured by the warm briny breeze. A net full of mullet or shrimp is a paycheck, not an endangered "marine resource." An economic indicator is when Levi Thomas' 3-year-old daughter Kendall bursts through the seafood store's front door.

"We need $5," she announces in a flurry of breathless energy, blonde hair bouncing on her shoulders. "We need milk and bread."

Storms and hurricanes, the lull before the mullet run in September, those are things the families could endure. The net ban they're not sure about. The Legislature can't repeal it, the courts are unlikely to invalidate it.

"It's going to put everybody out of business, filling stations, cafes, chain stores," says Betty Hartsfield, who speaks with the fury of someone whose life and family is under siege by an evil force. She blames Gov. Lawton Chiles, says he promised her in his 1994 campaign that he would not let the government do anything bad to fishermen. The net ban supporters went around Chiles and the Legislature with a constitutional amendment, but Mrs. Hartsfield can't accept that.

"I'm telling you, some of them's two months behind on their mortgage right now," she said of her neighbors and kinfolk. "I give it two months before some of the fishermen start losing their homes, their trucks, their motors they fish with."

The fishermen were angry, despairing even. This, the first day of the rest of their lives, was no greeting card rainbow. It was real, they knew. Yet taking their living from the Ochlockonee Bay and Gulf of Mexico was all they had known, was still the thing that gave them faith.

In bad times "we survived," said Mike Barwick, whose grandfather Gillie Barwick helped pioneer blue crabbing here. "Very few commercial fishermen relied on the welfare system. Everyone relied on what they caught out of the bay."

And for Barwick, life on the bay was all he could see.

"I'm going to fish," he said, gray eyes resolute in his round, bronze face. "Crab, shrimp, oyster, whatever it takes. But we're going to do it legally. I'm 36 years old, and it's all I've ever known."

Net ban basics

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

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 inshore 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 to 9 miles out in the gulf and 1 to 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.

Some exceptions

Vessels that are docked.

Vessels using nets in aquaculture operations.

Vessels containing or transporting DRY nets rolled, folded or stowed in sealed containers so as to make immediate use impractical.

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