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UF Study: Net Ban Took A Bite, But Fishermen Recasting Themselves

Chris Eversole

Suzanna Smith (352) 392-2202
Steve Jacob (352) 392-0386

CEDAR KEY — Tommy Smart had been a commercial fisherman for 16 years before Florida voters barred him from using large nets to catch mullet and other fish.

“When your life goes to hell, it’s not a good feeling,” he said, recalling his emotions after the net ban, a state constitutional amendment, went into effect July 1, 1995.

Smart’s despair four years ago represents the feelings of Florida’s commercial fishermen immediately after the net ban, University of Florida researchers found in a study they reported recently at the university’s Elise B. Newell seminar.

“Most coastal states either have adopted net bans or are considering them, but no other research has looked at their effects on families,” said Suzanna Smith, a family life researcher with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It’s important for officials to look at how such policies affect people.”

The UF researchers interviewed 44 couples in two surveys funded by the Florida Sea Grant College Program. The first was in 1994, before the net ban, and the second in 1997 and 1998.

“The emotional toll was high, resulting in the divorce rate among the families we surveyed rising to four times the state average,” Smith said. “Our sample of divorced couples is small, so it’s hard to say if this rate holds true for all families affected by the net ban.”

Despite the mental stress, 77 percent of the men surveyed still make part of their living fishing. This includes fishing with smaller nets that still are legal, fishing far offshore and crabbing. “They’re very resilient people who have responded well to the strains on them,” Smith said.

But the percentage of family income from fishing dropped from 80 percent to 55 percent between surveys. In addition, the men doubled the number of hours they spent doing work other than fishing or crabbing.

“Now that income from fishing has declined, their wives’ earnings make a bigger contribution to their families’ income,” Smith said. “The men no longer have the satisfaction of being the primary breadwinner.”

One in seven of the fishermen surveyed, including Smart, participated in training in clamming administered by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution of Fort Pierce with assistance from UF’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Smart grows clams in bags on a shallow offshore site he leases from the state, and occasionally he fishes with a small, legal cast net. “Sometimes I do better (than before the net ban),” he said. “Sometimes I do worse. At least I’m still on the water and working for myself.

“I’m in a lot better mood than I was right after the net ban, but I wish they had regulated nets instead of banning them. You don’t feel like you’re in America when they take away something that feeds people.”

The wives of men who fish full time today reported much more stress in the second survey than in the first one.

Smart’s wife, Alice, said her income as a meat cutter at a market has become more important since the net ban. “When you fish, you get paid today,” she said. “When you raise clams, it takes a year and a half to two years for them to grow. In the meantime, you don’t get paid.”

A sign of the increased mental strain was a doubling of people who said someone in their family had experienced emotional problems in the past year — rising from 24 percent to 44 percent between surveys.

“After the net ban, we found that an equal number of men and women reported signs of depression,” said Steve Jacob, a UF community life researcher involved in the study. “This is unheard of; groups of women almost always score higher than men on indicators of depression.”

Despite the families’ increased emotional difficulties, they showed no signs of excessive drinking, drug use or family violence. “This has to do with their strong character,” Smith said. “Our study doesn’t bear out the stereotype of fishermen as alcoholics or violent people.”

The fishermen took advantage of assistance provided them, the second survey showed. Eight of 10 participated in a net buy-back program, and six of 10 received unemployment compensation.

The fishermen have been able to make ends meet because they have always been quick on their feet, changing the species they fished when necessary and taking on outside jobs, Smith said.

“We’re survivors,” said Jimmy Allen, as he helped Smart clean clams and prepared to unload his own morning harvest. “The state didn’t give us a whole lot of choice. It said, ‘Try this (clamming), and see how it goes.’ If this hadn’t worked, I don’t know what would have happened to us.”