NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - An alliance of fishermen who make millions off a public resource wants us to retract all our stories from our "Hooked Up" series. The series showed how 50 fishermen can make $23 million a year from red snapper, and many never even drop a line in the water.
The Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance and its executive director, Buddy Guindon, sent us a 23-page letter, calling our stories sloppy and biased.
Many of the complaints focus on statements made by subjects we interviewed for our stories. They include 20 separate citations of comments in our series by Congressman Garret Graves of Louisiana.
"It is like the government determining who is going to be a millionaire and who is not," Graves told us.
The alliance says to suggest the "federal government arbitrarily picked winners and losers in the fishery is absurd."
The letter also finds fault with our writing, like when we wrote the government gets nothing in return from these fishermen.
"The people are really just shocked that this could possibly even be going on," Graves tells us in a recent interview.
Graves says he's heard from congressmen from all over the country since our five-part series was broadcast. He thinks now is the time to change the system.
"Based on the ideology, based on the perspective that President Trump has taken throughout the campaign and initially with his presidency, he is against rigged systems," Graves tells us. "This is rigged. This is rigged for a select group of people."
Graves says he'll reintroduce a bill that strips the federal government's control of the fishery and gives it to the five Gulf states.
"We're going to go ahead and pursue this," he says, "both through the legislative track and pursue it through some of the new appointees that the president will be putting in these key positions, because they can change this administratively, just as easily.
"Look, he continues, "government has a lot of important jobs, responsibilities, obligations; deciding who's going to be a millionaire and who's not isn't one of them and we've got to change this. And so, you know, whether this takes us weeks or this takes us years, I'm not backing down."
A prior bill had support of four Gulf states; only Louisiana was against it.
"When there was a new administration in Louisiana, the state of Louisiana was the one state that objected," he tells us.
But Graves says Gov. Edwards has assured him that he's now on board.
"He's said that he's for it," he says.
This 23-page letter likely shows these commercial fishermen will try to fight Graves and his bill. That letter also criticized our finding that 37 percent of the red snapper shareholders don't even fish. They didn't dispute the accuracy, but instead gave examples or reasons why five shareholders who don't fish lease their shares.
"As your segments showed, you have 37 percent of the people that aren't actually even fishing this stuff at all," Graves says. "They were given something completely free by the federal government. They can turn around and give it their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, whatever. And if they were to choose to sell it, they could take something that was given to them for free and sell it for six figures. I mean, that entire premise is totally flawed and it's an insurmountable obstacle to many people to be able to enter this business."
While the group of 50 fishermen have been unhappy with our reports, we've heard from dozens of others with positive comments, like a Florida commercial fisherman who wrote, "Your report hit home with all our concerns in regards to how unfair the small commercial fishermen are being treated and wrongly represented."
"Here you have a country with financial issues," Graves says, "and here you are enriching a select group of people to the detriment of the public and really the public's financial interests."
Graves told us the letter largely makes his points, writing our "series accurately exposes this absurd government giveaway of millions of dollars of a public asset for free." Graves writes, "The bottom line is that the letter represents an alternative reality where a select group of people gave themselves the winning lottery ticket and the rest of us are paying for it."
But the fishermen say the series was "inflammatory and it relied on unreliable, biased sources that challenge the journalistic integrity of our news organization."