Have you been paying attention to the chaos at hand with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries? It appears that there is a full three-ring circus going on with DWF and its secretary, the former Democrat congressman Charlie Melancon.
Melancon, who had bounced around unsuccessfully at a couple of lobbying firms after eschewing re-election to run for the Senate against David Vitter in 2010 (he lost, and badly), was something of a surprise choice by Gov. John Bel Edwards to run the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; Melancon’s expertise in the field of conservation is limited and most people saw him as a spent political force rather than much of an asset to the new governor. There was actually something of a hue and cry over the former secretary Robert Barham having been let go; Barham had won numerous awards as one of the best wildlife and fisheries managers in the country.
And after eight months on the job it’s pretty clear that perception among the in-the-know crowd was largely correct. The department is awash in controversy, if not criminality, and those affected by it are furious.
To full explain this, we should go back several years to a program set up at the federal level. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which is a federal commission set up to govern offshore fishing in the five Gulf states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), and the National Marine Fisheries Service set up something called the Individual Fishing Quota system, or IFQ, to govern commercial fishing for red snapper. What the IFQ did was to look at the annual red snapper harvest from years preceding the program and allocate the license for future catches to the people who had brought in a corresponding historical share. Some commercial fishermen got as much as 6 or 7 percent of the annual harvest; others got only a tiny amount. It was based on who had caught what in years preceding the program.
Meaning, the federal government resorted to crony capitalism as a means to govern Gulf red snapper fisheries. If you were a big player in the red snapper harvest before the program got started, you were one of the cronies and your incumbency would be protected.
And as in all crony capitalist systems, you don’t have to actually earn your place on the totem pole; it’s now your birthright.
The holders of the giant quotas often don’t even fish them all anymore. Instead, a marketplace has been set up where they sell the rights to those quotas to others – and they can sit on the dock sipping mint juleps while others actually bring in the harvest while paying for the privilege. These fortunate incumbents have been given the nickname Sea Lords, as their arrangement does very much resemble that of medieval nobility.
Alabama Live did an excellent piece on this arrangement some months back that really deserves a reading if you’re interested in the full background of the red snapper fight.
The effect of this is pretty cozy for the Sea Lords. They can put, say, the right to bring in 1,500 pounds of red snapper on an online marketplace and a broker will, for his own fee, move that right to a non-Sea Lord commercial fisherman. Let’s say the rights move for $3.00 per pound. And let’s say the dock price for red snapper is $5.00 per pound. The Sea Lord has made $4,500 sitting at the Harbor Club, while the fisherman who actually did the work only pockets $3,000.
You might imagine that the Sea Lords like the arrangement fine and the non-Sea Lords don’t, and you can see some political lines being drawn.
Also involved in the red snapper issue are recreational fishermen – particularly since they’ve largely been frozen out of the discussion of the fishery. The current season for red snapper is less than two weeks out of the year, and if you talk to recreational fishermen who tool around in the Gulf they’ll tell you there are so many red snapper in the water that it’s becoming difficult to catch much of anything else – those fish are hungry and they’re aggressive, and they’ll bite your hook before any other species even get a chance. You can imagine what such a short season is doing to recreational Gulf fishing, and what lots of charter boat captains think about the status quo. Louisiana and some other Gulf states have actually gone non-compliant with the federal red snapper season – Louisiana’s state waters are generally too shallow to support keeper-sized red snapper, so the state has extended its longer season for the fish out into the deeper federal waters.
As a result, Rep. Garret Graves, who is the congressman representing Baton Rouge and some parts south near the Gulf but who also has a good deal of expertise on the Gulf coast since his previous job was to head the state’s Coastal Preservation and Restoration Agency, brought a bill to make major changes to fisheries management in the Gulf. The bill, HR 3094, authored by Graves and co-sponsored by Reps. Cedric Richmond, Ralph Abraham and Charles Boustany, would transfer the management of red snapper extending out to the boundary of the exclusive economic zone to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
That bill is not Sea Lord friendly as you might imagine, and there is opposition to it from Sea Lords. One of whom is a man named Steve Tomeny, of Port Fourchon – Tomeny holds himself out as a charter boat captain and has been one for a long time, but he’s also a major commercial fisherman and a defender of IFQ.
Tomeny is also a max-out donor to John Bel Edwards’ 2015 gubernatorial campaign.
Which may or may not explain the opposition to Graves’ bill by Charlie Melancon, opposition which has made DWF into something of a laughingstock among the fishing community.
Let’s understand that Graves’ bill would put the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in charge of managing red snapper fisheries all the way from the Louisiana coast to the economic exclusion zone, something it appears most recreational fishermen support. And DWF is objecting to that in favor of having a federal board control the fishery.
Things have gotten interesting as a result.
There was the member of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, Julie Hebert, who went from reappointed to the commission by Edwards to dumped off it after she brought a resolution in April, passed unanimously, in favor of state management under Graves’ bill…
“I said, you know what? As a commission, we need to support this,” Hebert said. “Well, I got absolutely no feedback from the department. I asked for feedback, and it was coming, it was coming, it was coming.
“Just a few days before the (April) commission meeting, I reached out and said, ‘I still haven’t heard anything from you guys.’ They finally sent back something that was so fluffy, it said nothing.
“So I just made my own (resolution). I sent it over, and right before the meeting, Charlie Melancon said, ‘I need to ask a favor. I need you to table that resolution.’ I said, Why, Charlie?’ He said, ‘Well, there are some poison pills in that resolution.’ … I said, ‘Charlie, please tell me what they are. I’ve been asking for weeks. He said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m being told there are.'”
Hebert said she told Melancon she would not pull the resolution.
“He said, ‘There’s no sense of urgency on this.’ I told him, ‘I feel there is because Garret Graves is going to the Hill. I want our state to show support for his and Cedric Richmond’s house resolution,'” Hebert recounted. “He said, ‘Well, we’ll still be friends.’
There was the rather strange position Melancon took to the effect that state management of red snapper would cost his department $10 million it doesn’t have, largely because the state would have to study the red snapper catch on its own – something the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently does and there is no indication it would stop doing were HR 3094 to pass…
At Thursday’s meeting, commissioner Chad Courville questioned the amount the department said would be required to collect fisheries-independent data. Currently, much of that information is acquired by federally funded research vessels that go out for days or weeks at a time to set lines and pull trawls. Those scientists catch a wide variety of fish in those efforts.
Courville suggested the feds would still acquire that data because their hooks and nets will still run across the fish.
“They won’t close their eyes when they catch red snapper, will they?” he said.
Banks said that data may still be collected, but that doesn’t mean it would be available to him and his biologists.
“Our hope would be that they would collect that and we could request that, but we can’t assume that at this point,” he said.
NOAA data is public record. In a worst-case scenario Melancon’s department could file a Freedom of Information Act request to get it were it not provided; it’s difficult to imagine that wouldn’t be necessary. Furthermore, Graves pointed out that Gulf states are in line for $350 million for adaptive management and $265 million for open-ocean assessments as a result of the RESTORE Act’s dispensation of BP oil spill money, not to mention Louisiana raised the price of saltwater fishing licenses last year and that’s expected to generate some $1.8 million in annual revenue. Pleading poverty wouldn’t seem to be much of a strategy to satisfy the public, and it certainly wouldn’t seem to be a viable reason to oppose Graves’ bill when there is another explanation available in the campaign finance reports.
Then there were the fireworks when Graves attempted to testify to the LDWFC on behalf of the resolution and was called a liar for his trouble…
Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, showed up at the meeting to address the commission and refute what he called inaccuracies presented to the regulatory board last month by department Secretary Charlie Melancon. At the July meeting, Melancon had told the commission the department had pulled its support for a bill that would transfer management authority of red snapper from the federal government to the five Gulf states. Melancon had said his opposition was in response to a “poison-pill” amendment added to the bill by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, stripping it of funding and creating an unfunded mandate.
Graves, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, said the amendment did no such thing.
In the middle of his presentation, Graves was interrupted by Yolanda Martin, legal counsel for the department, who raised a point of order, since Graves’ presentation was not on the agenda and was part of the public-comment period.
In response, Graves entreated commission Chairman Bart Yakupzack to let him continue.
“Mr. Chairman, totally inaccurate information has been given to this board in regard to our bill, something this board has to make decisions on,” he said. “I think it’s awful to allow this board to operate under the assumption the information it’s been given is accurate.”
Melancon, who earlier had informed the commission of his intention to get stakeholders in a room to work out their differences, chimed in.
“This is exactly why I asked for what I asked for today, so we didn’t have to go through Pinocchio’s speeches,” he said.
Graves took offense.
“Did you just call me a liar?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Melancon responded. “We tried to contact you five times from our office before. This is the thing I was trying to avoid.”
“So, Mr. Secretary, it’s OK for you to come here and say things that are entirely inaccurate?” Graves asked.
“You came in, and said you had no pride of authorship,” Melancon responded. “The first question I brought up, you started explaining to me everything I didn’t understand about the bill, but we did read the bill. I’m afraid this is not Obamacare. We read the bill.”
Then there was Melancon’s strange announcement that he was bringing back the defunct Louisiana Conservationist magazine, an expensive print publication which used to serve as the house organ for DWF but was shelved amid a deepening pool of red ink years ago…
“I grew up reading the Louisiana Conservationist and credit this publication for my interest in the Louisiana outdoors as a kid,” Melancon said in the press release. “Many sportsmen and nature lovers across the state have a very close connection to this magazine and have requested we revive this historical publication.”
The Louisiana Conservationist launched in 1917 and ran until it was discontinued in 2010 due to increased printing costs and lack of demand. For years, the magazine was distributed to every hunting or fishing license holder in the state.
In the press release, the department said the magazine would return to print on a small-scale basis this fall and would be produced quarterly. At the commission meeting, Melancon said print runs would initially be 5,000 copies that would be distributed to public libraries, among other outlets.
Since the announcement at the commission meeting, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune has sought department estimates on costs to produce, print and distribute the magazine, but officials have declined to give specifics. Instead, Rene LeBreton, one of the press secretaries for the agency, sent a statement saying the resurrection of the Conservationist ‘is a work in progress.”
“Every aspect of the Conservationist will be completed by current department employees, and the cost to publication at this point will be minimal,” he replied by email. “If and when we ramp up publication, we are considering several revenue sources, but it will not place any significant financial burden on the department.”
LeBreton said ads would not be included in the magazine to help defray costs.
If you’re going to print a four-color magazine without any ads in it and you’re going to put 5,000 copies out quarterly to libraries across the state, you will lose more money than the magazine lost before it was shut down. That’s a guarantee.
Meanwhile, here’s the website for the Louisiana Conservationist. Just so you’ll know how serious the department is about communicating with the hunting and fishing community. If it strikes you that nothing has been posted there since Melancon took office, you might win a prize.
And lately, there is the very unusual story of Wendy Brogdon, the fired DWF employee who was put through the ringer by Melancon after she refused to alter the minutes of the LDWF Commission’s July meeting.
When the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted at its August meeting to postpone approval of the minutes from the July meeting, few observers gave it much thought, assuming there must have been some type of clerical error. But at the regulatory board’s September meeting, commissioners again voted unanimously to postpone approval of both the July and August minutes.
In his motion to delay the minutes’ approval, commissioner Chad Courville made reference to an email sent anonymously to all commissioners suggesting that changes had been made to the minutes without the consent of the commission.
The minutes had historically been transcribed and compiled by Wendy Brogdon, secretary of the commission and an assistant at the department, but a source close to the situation said the July minutes had been typed up by Toby Gascon, confidential assistant to Secretary Charlie Melancon. Brogdon was then asked by Gascon to sign her name to the minutes, but she refused, the source said.
Almost immediately afterward came the flooding in Baton Rouge, and while the Department was closed amid that disaster, Brogdon’s office was burglarized and a number of items were stolen – a 2-terabyte Western Digital hard drive; a 2015 DayMinder Executive Weekly/Monthly planner; iPhone and iPad wall chargers; 30 LDWF bronze challenge coins; 30 LDWF lapel pins; four Duck Commander duck calls signed by Willie Robertson, the star of the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty;” 138 Duck Commander tea cups signed by Si Robertson, another personality from that show; four Duck Commander baseball caps signed by Willie and Si Robertson; a raincoat; an umbrella; a LDWF fleece pullover and jacket; and a Yeti stainless steel thermal cup.
Wonder why anybody would want an external hard drive?
When Brogdon came back to work after the flood on August 21, she was told she was out of a job. She was placed on administrative leave Aug. 29 and has since been fired.
There are no suspects in the burglary. DWF’s surveillance cameras are of no use because they’re pointed to the building’s exterior.
It’s almost as if we had a little Watergate of our own. Perhaps we’ll call it Floodwatergate.
Things have gotten so bad at DWF in the wake of these strange occurrences that Melancon felt the need Thursday to call a staff meeting to rally the troops…
Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Charlie Melancon called a full staff meeting Thursday, where he attempted to rally employees behind his leadership in the midst of ongoing challenges facing the agency.
“There’s some good news for some, and some bad news for others,” he told the crowd gathered at the department’s Baton Rouge headquarters. “The good news, for the majority, I believe, is I am here for the duration. Some people have exaggerated … my demise.
“For some, the bad news is I am here for the duration.”
That isn’t Charlie’s call to make, of course. The question is how much worse things will get before Edwards decides to treat him as one of those out-of-season red snapper out in the Gulf and throw him back.