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Fishermen turn in nets, try to snag aid

One lone fisherman camped overnight in the parking lot to make sure he was first in line when the office opened.

By 8 a.m. Wednesday, he and 33 other net fishermen were lined up at the Meadowcrest complex trying to get state compensation for loss of their livelihoods.

They passed the time grumbling about the unfairness of the state net ban, which took effect Saturday and has effectively ended the commercial fishing of mullet and other fish.

Shaking his head over the money offered, John Ridge, a 31-year-old fisherman from Crystal River, said, "I think it's a drop in the bucket compared with what we need to get us back the way we were."

Although the state has arranged for as much as $250 a week in unemployment compensation for up to six months, amounts vary. Some fishermen were shocked to learn they would get only $80 a week or less.

They slowly filed into the offices of the Economic Development Association of Citrus County, one of 23 one-stop centers the state Department of Labor opened statewide for fishermen to apply for unemployment compensation and the net buy-back program.

By afternoon, about 90 people had sought help.

The center will be open today, Friday, Monday and Tuesday, and also offers other support services.

The early birds were on hand at 8 a.m., especially for the net buy-back program. They were all too aware it is offered first-come, first-served and that state officials still are searching for $20-million to fund the program.

The fishermen showed the Labor Department staffers their seafood products licenses, under which they had sold their catches commercially. The staffers then time-stamped the applications for the buy-back program before the applicants filled them out _ ensuring an early qualifying time.

However, Sally Patch, a Labor Department jobs specialist, said the other 22 one-stop departments followed the same strategy _ so applicants will have to wait and see.

About 25 fishermen have enrolled in job retraining programs, primarily as correction officers or truck drivers, said Lee Ellzey, director of the Hernando-Citrus Private Industry Council.

There were 185 commercial fishermen with seafood licenses in Citrus County. Still, an enrollment of 25 is relatively encouraging, Ellzey said. "Nationally, if you can get 10 percent or better of displaced workers to enroll in job training, that's pretty good. A lot of times, people are distrustful of government services."

For some, the news on unemployment compensation was added ammunition for that feeling.

The compensation was being figured on the basis of money earned this year and last year.

Jimmy Burke, 30, of Crystal River, said he grossed $9,000 in mullet catches last year, which he blamed on new state restrictions.

"We barely made a living that year, but that's the year they based the unemployment on. . . . I used to make a lot more than that. It doesn't seem fair."

Fishermen also were angry that they have to pay as much as $189 to become eligible for unemployment insurance. That's because as independent businessmen many were exempt from state unemployment insurance premiums. The Legislature has made an exception allowing them to collect insurance if they pay premiums retroactively.