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Fishermen Flounder As Gill Net Ban Kicks In

NORMALLY, Clark Nichols would be heading out into the Gulf of Mexico with his flat-bottom boat to catch mullet. With gill nets attached to the rear of his 22-foot vessel, Mr. Nichols could expect to haul in 500 pounds of the silvery fish in a 10-hour day. The fisherman from Crawfordville has followed this routine all his adult life.

But no longer.

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On July 1, a ban on gill nets went into effect in Florida that is disrupting a way of life for thousands of fishermen and many of the small coastal communities that have supported them.

The ban, overwhelmingly approved by voters last November as a way of helping conserve depleted stocks, has thrown some 2,600 fishermen out of work so far, and could impair several counties whose economies are tied closely to the commercial fishing and crabbing industries.

Nor is Florida the only place where the stricture is being felt. As waters here have been closed off, fishermen from the Sunshine State have tried to move their trawlers elsewhere along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. But many state and local officials have closed their grounds to outsiders, restricting out-of-state licenses to preserve stocks of their own.

The gill-net "war" in the Southeast is emblematic of the transition under way in many states. From the fertile waters off New England to the salmon-rich Northwest, authorities have placed various restrictions on fishing to conserve rapidly vanishing stocks - each time landing on age-old cultures with a thump.

"It's very devastating," says Mr. Nichols, a third-generation fisherman. "I don't know what I will do now to make money. Fishing is all I know."

As a result of the net ban, coastal areas like Wakulla County, just south of Tallahassee, are bracing for the worst. The fishermen generally live paycheck to paycheck, and every store and business in town is dependent on the industry. "Unemployment right now in Wakulla is at 5 percent," says Assistant County Attorney Brian Newman. "We anticipate that jumping to at least 15 percent in the near term as a result of the net ban."

Supporters of the new ban, not surprisingly, are elated. Conservation groups and sports anglers argue that it was needed to protect Florida's fish species from depletion. They say the 500-square-foot nets used by fishermen in in-shore and near-shore waters often pick up turtles and birds, such as pelicans.

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Armed with out-of-state donations, a few high-priced lobbyists, and a statewide advertising campaign, the conservationists easily got their message out.

"Our side never had a chance. We never had the money to get a fair hearing by the public," says Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association. "We viewed it as a clash of cultures and classes - the lowly fishermen versus the slick lawyers. People just never heard what we had to say."

The state is taking some steps to help those left unemployed by the net ban. The state Department of Labor is opening up counseling and job-training centers in 23 coastal cities. Some $20 million has been set aside to buy back gill nets from fishermen, at between $500 and $3,500 a piece.

But fishermen argue these efforts don't even begin to solve their financial problems. "I've got a mortgage and I've got to make payments on my boat; $500 is not going to cut it," says Alan Rankin, president of the Wakulla Commercial Fishermen's Association.

Ron Crum, of the coastal village of Panacea, says he sees desperate people all over town. "I've had five fishermen try to sell me their boats already. But the boats are useless now. They're built for only one purpose - net fishing."

In the meantime, legal efforts continue in an effort to reverse the net ban, passed as a constitutional amendment. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the fishermen.

"Commercial fishermen are forced to bear the burden of protecting a resource also used by sports anglers," says Frank Santry, a lawyer for the net-ban opponents.

But so far, legal challenges have fallen on deaf ears. Last week, a judge denied a request for a statewide injunction to delay enforcement of the ban.

Although the Southeastern Fisheries Association is encouraging all of its members to obey the net ban, Mr. Jones acknowledges that some fishermen are "bound to get desperate."

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