The Cultural Cost of Florida’s Net Ban

Fish house at Spring Creek

Former Gov. Buddy MacKay often included in his speeches a reference to Matthew 16:26: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

He used the quote to illustrate why Florida should protect its natural and cultural treasures or risk losing the very things that make our state unique.

By that measure, Florida hasn’t lost its soul yet. Not all of it, anyway. You can still find little pieces in places like Spring Creek, a tiny fishing village tucked away in Wakulla County on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast.

Named for the springs that flow into the saltwater marsh, the quiet little community is a window to the Florida our great-grandparents knew. You’d be hard pressed to find a place with more natural beauty or rustic, real-Florida charm.

This is a full-moon tide going out.

This is a full-moon tide going out.

But like so many old coastal settlements, the unique character of Spring Creek is fading and a way of life is disappearing with it.

Today you won’t see any mullet boats striking their nets around the oyster bars. Only a handful of crabbers are left and the old fish house isn’t nearly as busy as it once was.

There’s no doubt other issues played a role in the troubles, but locals will tell you in a hurry that it was the net ban that changed their world forever.

For those who don’t remember, there was a 1994 Florida ballot initiative to ban gill nets, the devices most commonly used to catch mullet. That referendum ignited a culture war, pitting the white-booted commercial fishermen against well-heeled recreational anglers.

Of course, the outcome was never really in doubt. Sport fishermen, tourism and development interests, environmentalists and the media teamed up to paint the commercial fishermen as greedy, irresponsible minions of a scofflaw seafood industry.

The fishermen, mostly unorganized and massively outnumbered, couldn’t muster an effective defense and the initiative passed by a wide margin. That it was a constitutional amendment also meant it was an ironclad prohibition with no room for negotiation or compromise.

The problem is that it didn’t end up being the seafood industry giants who paid the price. The heavy hitters could diversify or buy from elsewhere. Instead, the real losers were the small, family-run operations that relied on mullet for a large chunk of their meager incomes.

Some believe the ban was inevitable and that it was the best solution. After all, sport fishing is big business and some of the people displaced are now running charters. Others found higher paying jobs elsewhere. And it’s also a boon to local governments to have higher-value properties on their tax rolls.

As for me, a recreational fisherman, it’s tempting to just enjoy my pastime and force myself to believe the ban was a good thing. But when I visit Spring Creek, I can’t help but wonder if what we gained was as valuable as what we’re losing.

Author Leo Lovel, a local restaurant owner and former mullet fisherman, says that his is a “lifestyle that’s goin’ out like a full moon tide.”

As it does, I’m afraid a part of Florida’s soul is going with it.

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