Zurik: Louisiana loses with snapper barons' lock on quotas

Zurik: Louisiana loses with snapper barons' lock on quotas
Updated: Mar. 28, 2017 at 10:49 AM CDT
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GRAND ISLE, LA (WVUE) - The federal program that has made a select group of Gulf Coast fishermen millionaires has left a lot of Louisiana fishermen out of the money.

"We're kind of getting the short end of the stick," says Grand Isle seafood merchant Dean Blanchard. "We [were] purposefully cut out of the system. Does that sound right?"

In 2013, Gulf Coast fishermen brought 22 percent of the red snapper caught in federal waters to Louisiana docks. But Louisiana fishermen only have 9 percent of the shares to catch red snapper. So, much of the red snapper off Louisiana's coast is likely being caught by commercial fishermen from other states.

That doesn't sit well with Louisiana Congressman Garret Graves.

"We're 'The Sportsman's Paradise'," he tells us. "We have the most productive ecosystem, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Our fishermen should be the ones that are benefiting from this."

Fishermen in Florida appear to benefit the most in he Gulf; 41 percent of the fish make it to Florida docks. But Florida fishermen control 50 percent of the commercial shares.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council manages the fishery; its office is in Florida, whose fishermen hold the most shares of any state in the country.

Blanchard puts that in terms that LSU fans might relate to: The Gulf Council office in Florida is like the SEC office being in Alabama.

"Alabama gets all of the calls," he says.

For another reason, we go back to 2007, when the current Individual Fishing Quota system was created. The amount of shares were given to fishermen who had caught the most fish in prior years - the more you caught, the more shares you got.

"It was based upon some estimate of how much, how many pounds commercial fishers were catching over some period of time," Graves tells us. "Louisiana got crossways with the federal government and refused to agree to some licensing regime that the federal government had put in place. So, what happened is, folks in Florida complied, folks in Alabama complied, Texas, Mississippi complied. Louisiana didn't. And as a result, when they came in and did the historic look-back on how many pounds of fish, it further penalized Louisiana for the approach that our state had taken, compared to the others."

Of the 326 IFQ shareholders, only 21 have Louisiana addresses.

Blanchard recalls how the IFQ changes put Louisianans at a disadvantage. "The way that they made the system is, you had to have the paperwork," he says. "And they knew we didn't have it. They didn't give us a fighting chance."

Fifty businesses and fishermen control 81 percent of the commercial red snapper allocation. Those 50 fishermen can make a total of $23 million every year.

But only five Louisiana fishermen make that list. Brent Eggart of Galliano has the most shares in our state. He can gross $757,000 a year.

Cameron Parish, south of Lake Charles, may have been impacted more than any other community by the changes. Federal records show, in 2000, Cameron Parish had the fifth most red snapper landings in the country - more than Grand Isle, Venice and Pensacola.

But 11 years later, federal records show, Cameron Parish didn't even make the top 25 communities.

Just three commercial fishermen in western Louisiana have red snapper shares, accounting for just 1.5 percent of the total commercial catch.

Businesses and fishermen in Iowa, Montana, Virginia and New Jersey own shares, the right for them to fish in Gulf of Mexico waters. The program has allowed these 50 fishermen pocket millions - while many Louisiana fishermen without the proper paperwork, and hundreds of others who operate smaller businesses, have been left out of the work.

"I told the head of National Marine Fisheries, 'You made a liar out of my mother,'" Blanchard recalls. "I mean, my mother told me, when I was a little boy, if you work hard and you did all the right things, you could even be President of the United States. You could do whatever you want in this country. But apparently, you can't be a red snapper fisherman unless you've got a couple of million dollars to start."

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council designed the red snapper IFQ program in coordination with an advisory panel of fishermen and experts, and through an extensive public input process. The program design was based upon fishermen's landings history, the extensive public input process, an IFQ appeals process, and compliance with federal permit requirements.

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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