CORTEZ – As fishermen from nearby states pull into town with their boats in tow for the annual battle over lucrative mullet roe, Cortez fishermen are reminded of the war they lost 15 years ago this week.
When Floridians voted to amend the state Constitution to ban gill nets in 1994, their aim may have been to save dolphins and sea turtles, but their target turned out to be commercial fishermen and their families who lost their livelihoods.
The net ban was proposed by environmental and recreational fishing lobbyists whose scientists testified that mullet were being overfished. The proposal won support with the slogan, “Ban the Nets – Save Our Sealife,’’ and photographs of dolphins and sea turtles drowned in commercial gill nets.
Caught on the underfinanced end of the political tug of war, commercial fishermen tried to adapt. Some went into bait fishing or crabbing. Some went into dockbuilding or beach maintenance. Some graduated from smoking pot to smoking heroin.
None were left with their lives intact.
And some Cortezians fear they are seeing it happen all over again.
The net ban
“It’s hard to dredge it all up,” said Cortez fisherman Thomas “Blue” Fulford, who lost his leg in a fishing accident, and his livelihood when the net ban was passed in 1994.
Now he makes cast nets, which are still allowed. On his business card, he calls himself a dispossessed net fisherman.
“I did everything that could be done. Wrote everyone. The Cabinet, the House and the Senate,” he recalled, as a mullet jumped in the canal behind his workshop. “I got one answer, from Secretary of State Jim Smith, who wrote that it was six months before the vote, and I should get to work.”
So Fulford, the former director of the local chapter of the Organized Fishermen of Florida (OFF), went to work, as did his successor, Mark Taylor.
Taylor got flak from both sides, as he explained to friends and family in Cortez that the amendment that would ban their nets was based on hotly-debated evidence that there weren’t enough mullet to go around.
He also explained to a hostile Legislature, many of whom listed recreational fishing as a favorite sport in the 1994 Legislative directory, why the net ban would take food out of the mouths of Cortez residents and everyone else down the economic food chain, to no avail.
Commercial fishermen were an easy target because their activities are obvious and more easily regulated than nitrogen-polluted runoff, mangrove destruction and other causes of fishery declines, Fulford said.
“How many people are willing to stop using plastic bags?” he asked. “Plastic bags kill turtles, too.”
Riding back and forth to Tallahassee, Fulford saw new developments springing up and recalls thinking that Florida newcomers who didn’t know anything about commercial fishing were going to make the decision.
“They swallowed the propaganda, hook, line and sinker,” he said.
Most voters were uninformed, agreed Karen Bell, office manager of the 70-year-old A.P. Bell Fish Co., one of two Cortez fish houses that survived the net ban.
Three months after the November, 1994 vote, she got a call from a recreational fisherman announcing that the fishing was already markedly better.
“The ban didn’t go into effect until July 1 (1995),” she said.
The bad blood between recreational and commercial fishermen goes back to the 1960s, when anyone could sell fish to a fish house, said Cortez fisherman Mark Ibasfalean, who has been selling fish since he was about 12 years old.
“I remember long lines of people at Bell’s, both recreational and commercial,” he said.
After regulations were passed requiring a commercial license to sell fish, recreational anglers were cut out of the loop, he said. Years of finger-pointing over which sector was responsible for overfishing certain species and using bad fishing practices made for constant skirmishes.
By the 1990s, the recreational fishing lobby had found common ground with environmentalists concerned about bycatch – non-targeted species that wound up in gill nets – and funded the successful net ban campaign.
To stay on the water, some commercial fishermen reluctantly switched sides to work in the recreational sector, as fishing guides or tour boat captains.
After all these years, Kathe Fannon is still angry.
A member of a five-generation commercial fishing family, she now offers boat tours around Cortez and Anna Maria Island. Her customers learn about Cortez, its fishing heritage, its wildlife, its rising status as a film location and her take on the net ban.
“The Bible says ‘Cast your net on the waters,’ ” she said. “It does not say cast your rod and reel.”
The longline ban
With gill nets outlawed, some Cortez fishermen turned to longline fishing. Instead of catching fish in a net, they lay out five to 10 miles of line on the sea bed, baited with between 750 and 1,200 hooks, normally reeling it in before any sea turtles that may have been snagged can drown.
One fisherman who left a line out too long earlier this year and killed five sea turtles prompted a federal lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act and an emergency longline ban that began in May, putting fishermen out of work.
The ban was softened last month with an interim rule allowing longline fishing in water 35 fathoms or more with 750 rigged hooks until a permanent rule is implemented next spring. Local fishermen say the rule helps little since they harvest most fish between 20 and 30 fathoms.
Recent debates on the longline ban at hearings of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council evoke hearings in the early 1990s over the net ban.
Proponents of both the net ban and the longline ban include environmentalists and recreational fishermen. While the citizens of Florida made the net ban decision and regional and federal fisheries regulators are making the longline ban decision, the evidentiary process has been similar.
At public hearings, scientists with doctoral degrees speak in highly technical terms, debating the effect of the gear on marine life, both targeted species and bycatch.
Fishermen often can’t put their experience into words, and feel out of their depth, Ibasfalean said.
“I’m not calling anybody dumb, but a fisherman is not designed to understand highly technical stuff,” he said. “They’re farmers. They’re not scientists.”
During the net ban hearings, scientists and fishermen debated in their different languages whether gill nets were catching too many mullet, making it difficult for the species to propagate.
Fishermen argued that it was in their best interests to avoid overfishing.
“We have to be good stewards,” Fulford said, echoing testimony at several longline hearings this year when fishermen disputed statistics of turtle mortality, saying they had seldom, if ever, caught and killed turtles.
During longline hearings, fishermen pointed to other man-made causes of sea turtle mortality, including nest poaching and illegal artificial lighting, which can kill 100 turtles at a time in a single nest, channel dredging machines that suck up turtles and spit them out in pieces, recreational fishing bycatch, offshore racing collisions, oil spills, coastal development and pollution, beach renourishment and other factors.
Pleading for a lifeline, they asked for alternatives, including gear adjustments, such as shortening the length of the lines, reducing the number of hooks on the lines and banning bait that sea turtles prefer.
They suggested that turtle farming and better enforcement of land-based turtle laws could replenish natural stocks.
They also requested a gear buyback program, which helped a few fishermen who acted quickly after the net ban to cut their losses before the funds ran out.
The final decision, expected in spring, will likely limit longline endorsements to 61 commercial vessels in the Gulf using 750 hooks in 35 fathoms or more during June, July and August, and in 20 fathoms or more the rest of the year, said Glen Brooks, of the Gulf Fisherman’s Association, who owns six longline boats in Cortez.
The ripple effect
That’s not enough to keep the industry in business, according to Brooks, who paints a grim picture of the ban’s ripple effect on the local economy.
Unemployed grouper fishermen don’t use bait, so bait fishermen go unemployed, making bait shops flounder. Marinas don’t sell as much ice or diesel fuel. With fewer fish to process, fish houses lay off workers. Truckers who transport fish to other parts of the state are idled.
And, ultimately, consumers see less local fish in markets and on restaurant menus.
“The longline ban is already having the same consequences as the net ban,” Ibasfalean said.
Designed to avoid a “jeopardy call” – the death of a threatened loggerhead sea turtle – the ban is causing livelihoods to become extinct instead, Bell testified at an August regulatory hearing.
“I’m willing to take my chances with jeopardy,” she said. “We’re almost gone anyway. We’re just about ready to close the doors. The boats are in jeopardy, the fishermen, the employees, my family are in jeopardy.”
Where are they now?
The impending longlining rule will undoubtedly leave many fishermen dead in the water, Cortezians say.
Those who own boats might re-rig them to fish with less-effective vertical gear or use cast nets or put out crab traps, if they can afford to buy new gear and pay the licensing fees. Crews may have to learn new skills or get different jobs altogether.
Some may not make the transition.
“The net ban wiped out the old timers,” Ibasfalean said. “There was no grandfathering. People, when they reach a certain point, they can’t adapt.”
After the net ban, some fishermen turned from smoking pot to smoking heroin, Fulford said. Jokes spread about fishermen catching “square grouper,” or bales of marijuana dropped by plane into the Gulf.
But some stayed afloat.
Fannon switched to providing sightseeing tours after the net ban, and now works with her daughter, also a captain. Her father, Frank Tupin, made a living until his death last month catching bait shrimp with her husband, Mike Fannon.
Mark Ibasfalean and his brother, Bryan Ibasfalean, build docks, make independent films and videos, mostly about fishing, run www.TrueHollywoodScreenTest.com and fish and crab. His wife, Kim Ibasfalean, works as a Bradenton Beach tour boat operator.
Like the others, Taylor went out of business overnight when the net ban was passed.
“I had just hung a $10,000 net that had never been used. Suddenly, it was illegal,” he said. After working as a truck driver and a motorcycle instructor, he eventually landed his present job, raking Anna Maria Island beaches for Manatee County. It’s as close to the water as he could get, he said.
Fulford continues to make cast nets and is chairman emeritus of FISH, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, which supports the 95-acre FISH Preserve and the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez, where the local commercial fishing industry may one day be reduced to an exhibit.
Regardless of how fishermen adapt to the impending longline regulations, a bumper sticker on a boat trailer in Cortez says it all.
“I’d rather be fishing.”.