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Not forgotten — 25 years after the net ban

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Dec 2, 2020

A Dooley crew net fishing around the islands in the 1970s. PHOTO PROVIDED BY RHONDA DOOLEY

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

Generational islander Rhonda Dooley has a burning desire that no one forget the Florida net ban. She says many people still don’t realize what it was really about, and how it continues to affect the island and the families who made their living on the water.

“We’re still faced with it every day. It was a really big change for us,” said Dooley. “When they take your gear from you and they tell you that you can’t fish, the way you have for your whole life — the way your father and grandfather did before you…well you’re just at a loss.”

She said commercial fishermen are food producers.

“There were over 300 fishing families on the island back in the day,” she said, referring to life before the net ban. “Everyone had their hand in fishing — that was all they did and all they talked about.” According to Dooley, commercial fishermen around the island sold their catch to a number of fish suppliers all around Florida and even up into Georgia. She said the culture so revolved around their trade that hardly anything seems similar to the days before they had their craft altered.

“Fishermen are small businesses in themselves,” said Dooley, “they sell their product and the truck drivers pick it up and take it to the restaurants and retail markets and then it trickles down to the consumer. This wasn’t all just net fishing, there were also shrimpers and crabbers.”

Dooley said she remembers her own father getting oysters and scallops when they were plentiful in Pine Island Sound. Crabs in particular, she says, were cleaned and sold out of the old crab processing plant in the 1950s located where Hooked Island Grill now stands.

“Everything kind of revolved around seafood and local product,” said Dooley.

The aptly named, Olde Fish House Marina Restaurant, she says, was in fact an old fish house where seafood was bought and sold after it came in from the fishermen.

“These places have all changed into restaurants,” she said, adding that the quaint fishing village that once was, is very small now, as places like Matlacha have become mostly a tourist attraction.

At the heart of the net ban issue, Dooley said, is the recreational sports fishing world.

“They didn’t want commercial fishermen out there with their nets, because they felt they caught all the fish,” she said.

She also said that before it was voted on, there were TV commercials falsely depicting other species, such as turtles and dolphins, being caught in commercial fishing nets, in an effort to sway voters’ opinions that the net ban would be more ecologically sound.

“The nets they used were miles and miles long, and miles deep — the kind of nets on ships that are off-shore. We weren’t using those nets, we were heavily regulated.”

The result she says was the devastation of many who could no longer make a living to support their family.

“It was a way of life,” said Dooley, “a generational tradition that was handed down to people’s children.”

Dooley said her biggest concern now is that with all the present stipulations and limitations there won’t be anyone left to carry on that tradition.

“Net fishing has become so limited that it’s very hard for someone who’s new at it to make a living doing it,” she said. “It would be very hard to get into harvesting fish with the limited gear that we have. You can’t really make a living at it.”

According to Dooley, only someone with the skill it takes a lifetime to achieve on the water has been able to continue on with all the current specifications.

“They’re still allowed to use cast-nets,” said Dooley, “and that’s what some of the younger guys are doing.”

She said it takes a great deal of strength to pull in a decent haul using cast-nets. Her son, Shane Dooley, who was only 17 years old when the net ban was enforced, still works local waters. She recalls her son having his entire future altered, since he’d planned to do everything his father had taught him.

“He knew his future was going to be following in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps, making a living on the water” said Dooley. “At 17 he became diversified. When he was in high school he got occupational training credit when he jumped on a stone crab boat and he learned.”

The saddest thing, she says, is how many people had to abandon the industry and leave the island along with everything they’d ever known.

Dooley likens selling her and her husband’s gear to the feeling of having sold their souls, adding that to this day driving through Matlacha causes a pit in her stomach.

Rhonda’s husband, Mike Dooley, says the size of the fish they caught was determined by the size of the mesh nets.

“Now we have one size,” he said, “and it’s a 2-inch net. Before the net limitation, we couldn’t fish anything smaller than 3-inch stretch-mesh, now we can’t fish anything larger than a 2-inch.”

The net, he said, is like a diamond when stretched, and having only a 2-inch stretch-net allows all the juvenile fish get through.

Even with these stipulations, Dooley said he is able to make it work.

“We don’t catch a lot of fish but we catch a few fish,” he said. “We used to fish 600 yards, 20 feet deep, and now we can fish 500 square feet, which is 40 yards, and 5 feet deep.”

After the original amendment was voted on, he said a lot more rules were put into place, restricting commercial fishermen. He said the fishermen tried to work within these laws, reasoning that they needed viable gear to enable them to do their jobs in order to make a living, only to be met with further restrictions and regulations. As a result of the constraints placed on the industry, Dooley said it’s changed the face of the entire trade and most of the younger fishermen choose to use cast-nets, as he said a new young fisherman couldn’t make it on what the state now allows.

“There used to be 300 fishermen here, now I can go fishing for a week or two weeks at a time and never see another commercial fisherman out there. If I was trying to do it all over again — raising my kids, car payment, house payment, I couldn’t do it using just a 500 square foot, 2-inch net,” said Dooley.

“I would like the state to give us a bigger mesh than 500 square feet, so we can feed people who need to be fed,” he said. “We’re food producers. We can feed these families who are hungry — families who have to go down to places like their churches to get fed. Mullet is an inexpensive product. It’s good protein and I’d like to be able to supply people with a good meal.”

At the end of the day, both Dooleys admit they’ll never forget how the limitation amendment on commercial net fishing has affected their family, their livelihood and their community.