House panel OKs ban on gill nets
Bayou la Batre lawmaker says he'll filibuster unless mandatory buyouts are instead made voluntary
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
By BRIAN LYMAN
MONTGOMERY A House committee Tuesday approved a ban on commercial gill nets in the state's salt and brackish waters, but opponents warned of a floor fight in the full House.
The bill had support from environmentalists and recreational in terests, who said the mile-long nets were tearing up the bottom of Mobile Bay and threatening fish stocks in the area. Commercial fishermen who attended Tuesday's House Agriculture and Forestry Committee meeting said the bill represents a direct threat to their livelihood.
State Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Bayou la Batre, promised a filibuster unless mandatory buyout provisions were made voluntary. "Your vote will put these people out of business," he told committee members.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Jamie Ison, R-Mobile, would ban the use of commercial gill nets effective Oct. 1. Net fishermen would be giv en the option of taking five payments equal to 35 percent of their highest annual income in 2004, 2005 or 2006, or a one-time buyout of 125 percent of their highest annual income during that period.
The compensation would be funded through an $8 surcharge on saltwater fishing licenses over the next five years.
Alabama is the only state that continues to allow gill nets, which are blamed for depleting local stocks of Spanish mackerel and mullet, as well as killing birds, sea turtles and other kinds of fish. Alabama commercial fishermen
account for half of the total catch of Spanish mackerel in the Gulf of Mexico.
Edwin Lamberth, chairman of the Mobile-based Coastal Conservation Association's government relations committee, argued that the catches were hurting the state's $463.5 million recreational fishing industry.
"The nets have an economic impact in Alabama," he said. "They drive people from Alabama to states with bans, like Louisiana and Florida." That reduces recreational fishing in Alabama, he said.
Commercial fishermen and seafood industry representatives said local fish stocks are stable and that a ban would destroy local livelihoods. Mike Casey, a fisherman from Mobile, said he would "have nothing" if the ban went into place.
"There's nothing left," Casey said after the meeting. "They talk about using a cast net, but you can only catch two or three fish in the net, and that's it."
Commercial fishermen also argued that the gill net ban would end up hurting fishing-related businesses.
"If they shut us down, it won't hurt only us but other people, because fresh fish will be harder to come by," said Cecil Wainwright, a fisherman from Bayou la Batre.
A bill that would have allowed gill net fishermen to retire their nets voluntarily in exchange for compensation was approved by the House of Representatives last year but died in the Senate. That bill included a provision for the state to conduct a five-year study to determine whether gill nets were responsible for reducing fish populations.
Rep. Robert Bentley, R-Tuscaloosa, offered a substitute Tuesday based on last year's bill, saying the issue warrants further study.
"You'll use science to prove your side," he told Lamberth.
Lamberth said that science had already shown that gill nets diminish fish stocks. "There's no sense for the state to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to study something that every other state in the country has determined to be harmful," he said.
Collier, whose south Mobile County district includes many fishermen, was disappointed by the vote and said he would not accept the bill in its current form. He was particularly critical of Republicans on the committee who voted against Bentley's sub stitute, accusing "so-called conservatives" of voting to destroy an industry.
"I've got to represent the people who elected me, and it's the fundamentally right thing to do to oppose government shutting down business," he said.
Ison said the buyout offer is generous and rejected the idea that the vote punishes businesses.
"Absolutely not," she said after the meeting. "It's a vote to save our resources." http://www.al.com/news/mobileregister/index.ssf?/base/news/1208942140161160.xml&coll=3&thispage=1