Zurik: ‘Sea Lords’ hook a congressional reformer

REPORTER DEBRIEF: Zurik and Snell discuss "Hooked Up" probe
Updated: Feb. 16, 2017 at 3:21 PM CST
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PANAMA CITY, FL (WVUE) - Steve Southerland agrees: He was something of a threat to some commercial fishermen.

"I was in his kitchen," he tells us.

Southerland served two terms in Congress.

"I think it's time for all free people to be a threat to a government that picks and chooses winners and losers," he tells us now.

The former Florida congressman led the effort to change a federal program - unknown to most taxpayers - that allows a handful of businesses and fishermen to make millions off a government resource, creating what some fisherman call "lords of the sea."

The federal government gave a select group of commercial fishermen shares of the annual red snapper harvest, allowing some in this group to make more than $1 million a year. It's so profitable, some of these so-called sea lords don't even fish. They sell their yearly allocation, sitting at home but still collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's not right for anyone to own a public resource that is owned by the American people," Southerland says. "The American people own those fish that are in our waters."

The government essentially decides who will be a successful commercial fisherman and who will not.

"And it doesn't matter how hard you work," Southerland says. "It doesn't matter, you know, how much money you have to... That you've borrowed. It's all based on a philosophy. And if you believed in that philosophy, then you win."

Southerland took to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, trying to make changes.

"Our bipartisan amendment takes a big step towards halting the perpetuation of economic harm on our coastal communities," Southerland said, on the House floor on May 29, 2014, "one of which my family has lived in for 200 years."

In response, the same commercial fishermen profiting off this government resource poured tens of thousands of dollars into the campaign account of Southerland's congressional opponent. Those same fishermen contributed additional money to a political action committee called Ocean Champions that also went after Southerland.

"I think that it was a group of fishermen that worked towards that," says Galveston, Texas commercial fisherman Buddy Guindon. "Mostly guys out of Florida. I didn't have much to do with it. I contributed a little money to them."

Guindon can make $1.4 million a year from his snapper shares. Guindon and his family gave $15,600 to Southerland 's opponent, Gwen Graham, another $7,000 to the PAC, Ocean Champions.

"Our management system is working very well for fishermen," Guindon says. "It's working very well for the fish. And we need to tell our story. And a lot of the times, in order to tell your story, you have to get in a room and, as you probably know, there's not too many ways to get in the room. One of them is through political contributions."

Southerland narrowly lost that election by less than 3,000 votes.

We ask Guindon if this group tried to get rid of Southerland in Florida.

"Try to? No," he tells us, "we did get rid of Steve Southerland in Florida. Admit it? Yes. He was working towards poor fisheries management in the Gulf of Mexico. He was working toward eliminating the public's access to this resource."

Southerland tried to get that amendment passed months before being ousted from office.

"Catch shares is a fishery management tool that allocates a portion of a once-open public fishery to a select group of fishermen," he told his House colleagues, "forcing the others off the water and out of business. Put more simply, it's cap-and-trade for the oceans."

One of Southerland 's Republican colleagues, Texas Congressman Randy Weber, spoke out against his amendment.

"I will vote against this amendment and I urge my colleagues do the same," he told the House. "I have heard from my constituents and they want this program to grow."

Over the last five years, Guindon has given nearly $29,300 to Congressman Weber. And a few months after that speech, Weber received campaign contributions from other commercial red snapper fishermen in Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

"It's part of combating some of the negative information that is fed to our congressmen, our senators, our governors about our management system," Guindon says.

Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves has taken up the charge to change the program.

"You can't defend this," he says.

We showed him the long list of campaign contributions by commercial fishermen to select congressmen.

"Wow, these are some major dollars," Graves says. "I suspect that... some of this has something to do with the brick wall we've run into, trying to move this bill forward."

Graves' fix would be to take control out of the federal government and give it to the five Gulf states.

"It would allow for state control," he tells us. "The five Gulf states, with public participation, would determine what is in the public's best interest."

Just last week, a similar bill impacting the Dungeness crab program in the Northwest passed the House unanimously, while the same plan - impacting a different fish, red snapper, in a different region, the Gulf - has opposition.

"I've tried to change this in Congress, thinking this will a piece of cake, right?" Graves says. "You can't defend this stuff... You wouldn't believe the lobbyists that pop up out of woodwork and start fighting you on this. Who's paying for this stuff? Obviously, the millionaires that are benefiting from it. They are protecting their own best interests and sacrificing public interest."

Graves hopes to make progress with a new Congress and president.

"We've had all these lobbyists that have risen up out of the woodwork, that are fighting us on this bill," Graves says. "And I'm sure that they're being funded by these same people that are profiting off of the current situation."

But he'll do so with a former ally, Southerland, now working behind the scenes.

He acknowledges that the fishermen came after him.

"That's politics," he says. "I didn't go away, I just changed seats."

Steve Southerland lost his seat in Congress.

"This is a labor of love," he tells us. "Nobody's paying me or contributing to me to sit here and speak to you. I'm doing that because I believe this is an issue. It defines who we are as those live on the Gulf Coast."

It's a loss for opponents of the current federal program, but a win for the select group of fishermen fighting any change.

"Mr. Southerland's back what he's doing best at - burying people," Guindon says. Southerland is president of a funeral home in Panama.

We reached out to Congressman Weber for comment on our findings. His office emailed this statement:

The Congressman has enjoyed broad support from a variety of groups. He is currently fighting for a solution that ensures recreational fishermen receive more days to fish in federal waters. The Congressman did not support Rep. Southerland's amendment to H.R. 4660 in the 113th Congress, because he believes all fishermen can negotiate a better deal.  Rep. Weber finds it woefully unacceptable that recreational fishermen could only fish nine days in federal waters for red snapper in 2016.  He is currently working with other Gulf Coast members of Congress on legislation addressing this important matter. This issue remains a top priority for him.

You can find earlier reports in our Hooked Up series online at http://FOX8Live.com/HookedUp. You'll also find web-exclusive stories, including:

Click here to go to the HOOKED UP investigation page at FOX8Live.com.

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