Every year, staff at the State Archives of Florida gets ready for the Florida History Fair by searching out primary source documents and compiling a list of resources for students and teachers. One of this year’s suggested Florida-related topics is “Commercial Fishing Net Ban: Economics, Ecology, and Responsibility.” That topic led us to this story.
In 1980, folklorist Peggy Bulger interviewed net maker Billy Burbank III as part of her research on the fishing industry in Florida. Burbank told Bulger the tale of a fishing boat that accidentally caught something very strange in its trawl nets.
Burbank family at Burbank Trawl Makers, Inc., Fernandina Beach, 1986
Billy Burbank and the Strangest Catch
B: My name is Billy Burbank, III. I was born in Fernandina Beach, Florida, October 2, 1951.
P: Now tell me something about your grandfather, William Burbank.
B: Well, my grandfather was born on Cumberland Island which is in Georgia. He started shrimping oh back in his early years when he was 15-16 years old. He got into the shrimp business, oh just starting shrimping and started making his own nets.
And when oh his nets seemed to out produce everybody else’s nets. Then everybody decided to get him to make their nets and then that’s when we got started in the net business in about 1915 and been in it ever since.
P: […] Oh, what is the strangest catch you’ve ever heard anybody catching around here?
B: Strangest catch?
B: […] Probably be oh, submarines. An actual submarine in someone’s net started towing the boat backwards almost sinking the boat didn’t even realize they had the shrimp boat caught. It was the— not a Navy submarine. It was a German, I mean a Russian submarine.
B: Well, it was off this coast, yeah. They didn’t even realize that they had the submarine in the net at first. They were towed one way and all of a sudden started going backwards of the cable popped. And just a little while later they saw the submarine surface with the shrimp net on top of ’em. I guess I’d have to say that is the weirdest catch.
Learn More About Net Making
Burbank nets have been used by people in the U.S. from North Carolina down to Florida and up the Gulf Coast through the Texas Panhandle area. Their nets have also been exported to Central and South America and Africa. At the time of the interview, Burbank Trawl Makers was the largest producer of fishing nets in the United States.
In the interview, Burbank also describes the different net types and uses – including flat nets, four seam balloon nets, two seam balloon nets, and a modification that Billy Burbank III developed called the Mongoose, which is actually two nets in one.
Read the full interview in Netmaking and Net Fishing in Florida.
Close-up view of net made by Billy Burbank III, Fernandina Beach, 1980
[UPDATE: Known since its inception in 1980 as the “Florida History Fair,” the program name is changing to “Florida History Day” (FHD) in keeping with the style of other National History Day (NHD) affiliates.]