Gill net buyout reached after long negotiations
Saturday, May 10, 2008
By BRIAN LYMAN
MONTGOMERY The negotiations continued until an hour before the vote was taken, but in the end, both sides in the gill net controversy say they got what they wanted.
Fishermen who use gill nets off Alabama waters got guarantees that they could hold onto their gill net licenses for life. Conservationists got a buyout package that will not allow those licenses to be transferred once they're surrendered, a move they say will gradually reduce the number of gill nets in use off the Alabama shore.
Those agreements, along with a mutual weariness over the issue and a desire to settle it this year, led to a compromise bill clearing the Legislature on Thursday, after weeks of discussions and some nine drafts of the compromise effort.
"There was a desire to settle this issue that's just been very emotional, very controversial," said Beth Marietta Lyons, a lobbyist and former state representative who represented the Alabama Seafood Association during the debates. "There was a desire to have a resolution. Once the buyout was voluntary, we could start seriously talking."
Alabama's gill nets have been blamed by local scientists for causing a "localized depletion" of species such as Spanish mackerel and mullet, and conservationists have called the nets destructive because they kill many species that encounter them, including birds and sea turtles. Commercial gill net fishermen have insisted the stocks are healthy and that their work supports the local seafood industry and related businesses.
The legislation that finally emerged from the negotiations allows commercial gill net fishermen to retire their nets starting March 1, 2009, in exchange for a one-time payment.
Those who caught less than $5,000 worth of fish in calendar years 2005, 2006 and 2007 would receive a payout of $6,000. Those whose catch in those calendar years totaled $5,000 to $20,000 would receive 200 percent of the highest annual income during that period. Those who caught $20,000 or more in those calendar years would receive 125 percent of the highest annual income during that period.
Once surrendered, the licenses would be retired.
The bill has been sent to Gov. Bob Riley for his signature. A spokesman for Riley said Friday the governor would review the bill before deciding whether to sign it.
Legislation that would ban commercial gill nets was introduced last year by state Rep. Jamie Ison, R-Mobile. It ran into opposition from state Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Bayou La Batre, who represents many fishermen and said it would drive them out of business. A compromise agreement that would have made the buyouts voluntary passed the House of Representatives last year but did not come to a vote in the Senate.
Ison brought the legislation back this year. At a House Agriculture and Forestry Committee meeting last month, Collier restated his concerns. Supporters of the ban insisted the mandatory ban would keep the fish stocks off the coast healthy, but Edwin Lamberth, director of government relations for the Coastal Conservation Association of Alabama, said a voluntary buyout would be effective through the gradual decline in commercial gill net permits.
"No more transfers of permits can be issued," he said. "The end of this destructive practice is in sight."
The Senate passed a bill sponsored by state Sen. Pat Lindsey, D-Butler, on May 1 that would have made the retirement of the nets mandatory and would have given fishermen the option of taking a one-time buyout equal to 125 percent of the value of their best annual catch for the years 2004, 2005 or 2006, or five payments, each equal to 35 percent of their best catch in those years. But Collier, who could not be reached for comment Friday, made it clear he would filibuster any bill with a mandatory buyout provision.
"I will not stand by and let them put (the fishermen) out of business," Collier said during a House debate Thursday.
The bill that eventually emerged was the result of negotiations between Collier, Ison and the associated parties.
Several commercial gill net fishermen traveled to Montgomery during the legislative debates, and some expressed fear that the debate wasn't over. David Buchanan, a fisherman from Gulf Shores, said Thursday the bill "was the best we could get."
"We're hoping to keep Coastal Conservation off us for a few years," he said. "We're hoping to get relief." http://www.al.com/news/mobileregister/index.ssf?/base/news/1210410921166660.xml&coll=3