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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Burbank Trawl Makers
Interviewed Oct. 25
Becky Jeffries, Korynne Karlau, Brad Scavelli interviewing Billy Burbank III
Korvnne What got you started in the net making business?
Billy It's a family business, and it actually started in the 1900's with my grandfather. My
grandfather, Bill Burbank, Sr., was a blue fisherman. He would go out every day, up in
the Georgia waters and into North Carolina, and would catch bluefish, do a bit of saning
and stuff on the beaches. During that time they found that they were catching large white
shrimp along these beaches in these sane type nets they were using to catch fish. When
they did, my grandfather was one of the pioneers that started making nets actually for
shrimp, using a boat to troll a net, which is called an "otter trawl." This is a net that's got
two wing like apparatuses made out of wood that actually spreads the net open when it's
dropped into the water and then the boat tows it along the bottom and the shrimp are
funneled into a trawl, which has got a closed end on it. As the net loads up with shrimp
they will dump them on the boat and sort through them. He started doing this and
making nets. His nets worked so well that other people wanted them to make their nets
as well. That's what really led into our being in the net business. My father came into the
business in the 50's. He started on his own in this building that we're in right now in
1957 or '58. During the 60's, the summer months, I was working in the net shop myself.
I started when was about 9 years old, that's when I learned how to sew. From that point
on I continued working summer jobs and then I went one year of college, a lot of
scholarship offers. I didn't really know what an SAT test was, so when I went to take the
test I was 50 to 75 points shy of making most of these scholarships. I never went back.
Was going to pursue baseball down the road, I wound up not doing that. My father was
having some trouble in the business, so I quit and came to work as a net maker since the
Korynne Do you ever regret being in the net making business? Or wish you were doing
Billy Everybody has their dreams, but no, I don't regret it. It's a business that I can use my
hands, it's my own business, it's creative business, it's something that God put on this
earth for man to live off the land. It seems that our country is forgetting that. The
shrimping industry itself is one that's doing a lot to isolate the product that they're going
to catch. The shrimping industry has done a lot more, whereas some of these other
industries didn't have the money or the time or the resources to take it as far as the shrimp
industry has. The shrimp industry's strong throughout the world, not just the United
States, and a lot of people don't see the inside part of it, all the technology that's in shrimp
nets today, to let us harvest shrimp at certain times of the year economically and feasible.
Shrimps are almost like a bug, they only live 14 months. It's like an acorn on a tree: one
year you've got plenty, one year you don't. Depending on the weather patterns we have.
We need warm weather, rainy seasons. This is one of the better seasons that we've had in
the shrimp industry; a lot of rain, a warm winter last year. This lets a lot of shrimp hatch.
A white shrimp egg can stay dormant up to about seven years. The industry suffers
because of the price of shrimp, the price of fuel, not enough shrimp. But as a whole it's
held together all these years, and it's still a lucrative business.
Korvnne Do you ever fish or shrimp now?
Billy At times I go to other countries and help put a little more technology into their fishing
industries. Actually spending time out on the water, no. I don't have time for it. I work
seven days a week here, from five in the morning to five, six in the evening.
Korynne How does working the long hours affect social and family life?
Billy It doesn't affect it at all, really, because, for one, my wife is my secretary. Whatever
happens down here stays down here. I have a son who's 9 years old, quite an athlete,
and no matter how tired I am I find time for him. It really doesn't affect me at all. I'd like
to have more time off to do some hinting or fishing or traveling or whatever. Mainly
what I want to do with this business here is take it as far as I can for as long as I can, and
when the time comes for me to rest, then I'll rest. It was my grandpa, always told me, he
said "you rest when you die." That's what made us hard workers
Korvnne Do you think you'll bring your son into netmaking?
Billy I really don't want to see him work as hard as I've had to work to make a living. And yet
he's a creative and open minded little guy. He knows how to do the work right now, he's
only 9. We got into the sport net business too, we build batting cages, soccer nets, and all
this. And that part of it is a little more exciting, a little more lucrative. I'll leave him
something on that end, if he wants to get into it. Right now we're just going as hard as
we can, keeping him in sports that he's interested in, and he's excelling in everything he
plays in, so we may be looking at a sports career too.
Korynne What is Amendment 3?
Billy In our opinion, it was something that never should have happened. The story about
Amendment 3 was, in South Florida mostly, we've got more and more people moving to
the state, building on estuaries where there's never been people. Before those people
showed up there were people making a living catching different species of fish. There's a
variety of different species that are mixed up in this Amendment, take mullet for
example. Mullet is a species of fish that they make good money on it during certain
times of the year. It's a lucrative business, but they can only be caught with large gill
type nets. That particular species of fish now is unharvestable by any kind of a net other
than a cast net. In other words, the market is gone. What the Amendment was, people
living on these estuaries and'sport fishermen were complaining in a decrease in redfish,
trout, species that they like to go out and hook and line, for sport. We already had over
200 laws and regulations on the books that would regulate the nets, when they could use
them, where they could use them, and at what time of the year they could use them, and
even not use them at all if the trout population was down. The Amendment is going to
see that taking those nets out of the water is not gonna do anything as far as bringing the
population of trout back, for example. Red fish came back, this took place before
Amendment 3. Red fish came back because they put a moratorium on them, and the sport
fishermen can only keep one fish at a time at certain times of the year, it had to be a
certain size. When you stop and look at the number of sport fishermen that has increased
since the early 1970's, the commercial numbers are actually decreasing. If anything has
been done to hurt the populations of fish, it has been the sports industry as well. There's
certain aspects of net fishing that were devastating. That is, the law would let you and I,
for example, we see a guy who has caught a bunch of fish with a gill net. We can go
down and get a license, we can stop a creek up, we can circle a school of fish, we don't
know what kind they are, winds up being mostly trout. Here's two or three guys down the
creed from us, they haven't caught anything yet, we come by with a net and a load of fish.
This is what brought about Amendment 3. Really the whole country needed to sit down
and look at what's happening in our seafood industry, as far as how we're harvesting
them, where we're harvesting them, and the impacts of houses being built on marsh areas,
golf courses being built in our estuaries, which we have more problem with that. The
pesticides that they're killing mole crickets with are devastating to shellfish, crabs,
anything such as a shrimp. A lot of small stuff goes into our estuaries, and they're being
killed because of that. We're not seeing this now because, when Amendment 3 came
about all we saw was the exploited hoopla; these people were deadset on getting done
what they wanted to get done. The commercial industry didn't have the money, or didn't
want to spend the money, to try to fight it to the extent that they needed to. This guy in
the Florida Sportsman magazine could gather enough funds from different organizations
to get what he wanted in this thing. To get back to how it's affected my industry here,
that part really hasn't affected me. For one, we don't make gill nets, we're into
commercial trawls. We expert them out of the country, we build for most of the states in
the United States, along our coastline, Texas all the way up to North Carolina. Along
with Amendment 3 came a one mile closure of our beaches. A shrimp is an inland
species, it likes to hug the coastline at certain times of the year. They stopped the big
boats from dragging along the coast. The Amendment has a flaw in it, it still left people
dragging in our estuaries, and in my opinion these are the areas that need to be protected.
The one mile closure on the beach hurts the big boats at certain times of the year because
the weather may be such that the shrimp stay along the coast, within one mile. They can't
get at them. Remember, these shrimp only live 14 months, so they're going to die sooner
or later. It's like leaving a pine tree grow to its fullest and then waiting. The bugs get a
hold of it and kill it and then it's no good to anybody. You have to harvest them at a
certain time. This one mile closure has not turned out to be too devastating on the
shrimp industry because these shrimp are growing a little bit more. Once they come out
of the rivers and out of the estuaries they go around into the eddies and back into this one
mile protected area. We find that they're growing, they're getting bigger. And the bigger
they get, the more money they're worth. The weather that we have, northeast days, what
have you, pushes the shrimp outside of this one mile limit and then the big boats can get
them. they have to spend more time at sea, trying to figure out when they're going to
come out and where they are because they don't have the technology yet to see under the
water, to see where these shrimp are going to be you have to go from years and years of
intuition, what's been passed down to you.
Brad It seems that this net ban is a band aid to try to fix the real problem, but the real problem
is in the developments and so on.
Billy Exactly right. The Amendment's done its harm as far as the Amendment goes; gill
netting will never come back in the state of Florida. Certain aspects of it shouldn't. A lot
of people were led to believe that, when we import shrimp, they're coming out of ponds
in China. Actually, they're coming out of rice fields in China, we have a little bit of it
being done in the United States, in the South Carolina area and in the Texas area, there's a
lot of shrimp coming out of ponds from Ecuador and some of these South American
countries. What people don't see is, from time to time, these ponds become bacterialized,
the shrimp won't grow, the shrimp are diseased, they can't ship them into the United
States, they can't use as much sodium bisulfite on them to make them look fresh and good
by the time we get them. So they're telling all these commercial fisherman "Why don't
you just sell your boats and start shrimp farming?" Shrimp farming in the United States
is absurd, for one, the EPA regulations for the pesticides that are being used in the United
States. We cannot utilize estuaries like you can in these foreign countries. You can
go buy up a hunk of marsh, dig some ponds, and start raising shrimp. These shrimp are
not wild card shrimp, they're not the white shrimp we catch in the ocean, these are a
different species of shrimp. There are so many variables in there that it is not practical to
do that. We have an ocean out there. If we weren't made to make a living out of this
ocean, and to do it smart enough. In other words, we've put men on the moon, we can do
all this. God gave us this ocean to do something with, too, we just have to do it in a
proper manner. You have to get the right people together to make the right decisions.
We've got more government intervention into the seafood industry than we've ever had.
We've more or less regulated the industry ourselves. There was a time shrimpers were
almost going to lose their boat. A lot of this was because of poor management, don't
know how to handle their funds, can't make it from one bad season to the next bad
season. So they went looking for government funds to carry them over. During that time
everybody assumed "You guys are catching all these shrimp, you're killing the breed."
That wasn't the case, and that brought the government into the picture of things, and now
it's a lot of different groups getting money from one organization or one funding or
whatever and they're all fighting against each other instead of trying to sit down, look at
the whole broad picture. Use a little bit of common sense, we can feed our children and
families and friends who want to eat seafood from here on out. Some broad minded
people need to get in this industry and look at what we have.
Korynne What can you tell us about the fishermen around here? Are there any stories or
superstitions dealing with your field of work?
Billy There are not so many superstitions in my field of work, other than the fact that there are
some fishermen that don't want me to start their net on Friday. They have a thing about
not starting a trip on Friday. Some guy at one time or another must have started his trip
on Friday, he must have had'some bad luck. Tore up all of his nets, the boat might have
sunk, whatever. Some believe that you don't take bananas on the boat; you don't have
a female on the boat; you don't turn your hatch cover upside down on the boat, if you take
it off you lay it face down; you don't say "alligator" on the boat, you call them pond
lizards or whatever, but don't say "alligator." That's just a few of them, I'm sure there's
Brad I suppose these nets that you make are much better than a machine can put out?
Billy The machine actually makes the netting, but shrimp nets are a higher tech type trawl; it
has to be fabricated into a comb shape, some fish higher in the water, some fish lower in
the water, you have to vary them according to the horse power, what type of shrimp,
we're dealing with different squares or mesh sizes in the nets, different gages, heavy or
light, depending on the power again. There's just so many variables, it's almost like a
tailored suit; some captains prefer something a little bit different, so we custom make it
his way. Machines right now are not capable of dealing with all the tapers and cuts that are
in a trawl that actually put it together. That's still a ways away, one reason being is
because the industry still in itself is limited. There's only a number of commercial boats
throughout the United States and the rest of the world, there are enough net makers
scattered around to do the jobs the way we've been doing them. Technology wise, I don't
see it coming any time soon.
Brad Still, though, like the Jaguar vs. the Honda, will your nets be of higher quality?
Billy They always have been. We put a lot into them, we have people that grew up in this
business with me as well. It's hard to find families and people who have put their time in
because net making's learned like an apprenticeship, you don't just read it in a book. You
actually have to get in there, start from the bottom and work your way up. We have to
produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 to 2000 nets a year, by hand. To do that
you have to get enough skilled, qualified people in here to turn that much work out.
Remember, we're dealing with seasons, with custom nets, we're not dealing with just
standard stock nets. We may get proved wrong about all this by the year 2000, but if it'll
carry me about 15 or 20 more years, so be it.
Brad Have your children been trained in this?
Billy I've got a daughter that's 23 and she can do it, but she's working on a golf course right
now. My son, Hunter, he comes down and helps me when he can. This summer he did
a lot of little odd jobs for me, he knows what it's all about.
Korvnne How long does it take you to make a net?
Billy It depends on the size and how many people I've got helping me. We can sew one up in
an hour, maybe a little less. I myself, certain nets, can build within an hour. I can cut
them out, build them, sew them up. Then it goes through a step out here where this guy's
hanging it on a combination cable, that's actually how the net's towed through the water.
After that we put a bag, that goes on the tail end of the net. That's where all your shrimp
go. And when we finish here we can go outside to this treatment plant and we put a UV
preservative on it, stiffens the netting and helps it last longer.
Korynne What is the average life on each net?
Billy It can last a matter of ten minutes under the water if the guy doesn't know where he's
putting it. If there's an old sunk boat, if he's new to the area, he can tear up $10,000
worth of net in about 5 minutes. You can get three, four, five years out of it, but they
have to be reworked probably every three to six months because they get holes torn in
them, they get worn out a little bit, we refurbish them and rebuild them. Most people buy
new nets at least every other year.
Korvnne About how much does a net run?
Billy A net can average from $400 to 2 or 3 thousand, depending again what it's made out of.
We've got some high tech material called Spectra, which is a fiber they've come up with,
probably the highest grade of polyethylene being made now. You see it on a lot of the
sports fishing lines, you see it advertised on TV and all. We make nets out of that stuff
too. The price per pound of that netting is like $40 dollars a pound, there may be 50 to 60
pounds of netting in one net.
Korvnne What do you do with old nets?
Billy Usually just discarded. We have a lot of people who come and get it for decoration for
restaurants, decorate their homes. We have little pieces of white scrap netting, a lot of
people do little crafts with them. Decorate seashells around their decks and porches and
stuff around pools. *
Brad I noticed that each person is doing their own separate little job. Is each person
Billy These guys are pretty versatile, they can do just about everything in here. Most of the
guys you see here are not skilled enough to actually cut a net out and build it, like I'm
doing, but we're getting to that point with some of them. Most of them know the
fundamentals, which are hanging the net, building the tits, putting on bags, sewing the net
up, that kind of thing.