Twenty years ago Wednesday, Florida banned gill-net fishing, one of the most controversial conservation measures in the state's history.

The ban devastated livelihoods and what remained of a once-vibrant commercial fishing culture in small coastal towns throughout Florida.

But proponents of the ban say fish species — especially mullet — have vastly improved since voters decided to prohibit large nets that entangle fish by the gills. Critics of the ban say it was unnecessary, destroyed family businesses and simply shifted the catch from commercial fishers to the much more politically powerful sport fishing sector. They point to unchecked development and poor stormwater management as the main causes of most fish declines, not their nets. Seagrass loss in the Indian River Lagoon, for instance, put much more of a hurt on fish stocks than gill nets, they say.

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