By now our readers are surely familiar with the very strange behavior of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Charlie Melancon with respect to his opposition to a bill brought by most of Louisiana’s congressional delegation that would put individual Gulf states, rather than the federal government, in control of the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
If you’re not up to speed on Melancon’s antics and escalating feud with a key member of the delegation, Baton Rouge congressman Garret Graves, we offered a primer here.
Most of the speculation you may have seen involves the idea that several of the larger commercial fishing concerns along the Gulf coast, who benefit from a crony-capitalist scheme wherein shares of the red snapper market have been allocated based on incumbency – the owners of those concerns have been given the moniker “Sea Lords” since the red snapper catch largely resembles a feudal system of sorts – have essentially bought Melancon and his opposition to the bill Graves is proposing is a product of that purchase. Graves’ idea to put the state in charge of the red snapper fishery would break up the current allocation scheme and put the Sea Lords out of commission in Louisiana, or at least make their incumbency a matter which would be up for grabs.
But there is something else going on which might also explain why the man who would gain more power should Graves’ bill pass is fighting so hard not to have it. Melancon says his agency doesn’t have the money to handle the red snapper fishery, and that claim doesn’t hold much water – and furthermore his most recent denial opens the door to speculation that it isn’t just the Sea Lords pulling his strings but the environmental lobby in cahoots with them.
Joe Macaluso, the long-time outdoors correspondent at the Advocate, had an interesting article yesterday about the latest developments…
The latest for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ appointed top man in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries comes from a Sept. 15 letter Melancon penned to Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the standing chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.
In the missive, Melancon continued to decry HR 3094, a bill introduced by Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana, that would hand recreational red snapper management in the Gulf of Mexico to the five Gulf states.
Melancon continued to state his objections to the bill, the same ones he and his staff offered in July, and continued to indicate that Bishop’s amendment passed with HR 3094 would put the onus of data collection on the states despite Bishop’s letter to the LDWF that his amendment did not indicate the states would have to assume the costs of data collection.
Melancon’s letter stated that Eileen Sobeck, who is the federal fisheries manager, had expressed concerns about the feds sharing their own data, on which current fisheries management is based, with the states. This was a reason why DWF couldn’t take over the management of the red snapper fishery; that ought to seem strange to you, as what you’d expect would be a letter from Melancon to Sobeck asking what the problem is and why that fishery data isn’t a matter of public record available to everyone.
The story goes on…
Melancon further stated in the Sept. 15 letter that “similar concerns have been raised by stakeholders” and listed the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the Destin Charter Boat Association among others. He said “… concerns were strongly considered recently by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the FWC instructed Executive Director Nick Wiley to withdraw support for HR 3094 unless Mr. Graves removed references to the commercial and charter for-hire sectors,” then referenced “social media” that Florida’s red snapper-management estimate was “approximately $40 million.”
Except it turns out Melancon wasn’t telling the truth.
That’s where this latest controversy got messy: In a Sept. 29 letter, Wiley, in a letter to Bishop, stated he received a copy of Melancon’s letter from Bishop and in response to that letter stated, “Please know that we greatly respect and appreciate our colleagues in the State of Louisiana and all of the other Gulf states, and we hope to work with each of these states to do our part regarding wise and sustainable management of the red snapper fishery. With that said, Secretary Melancon’s letter includes inaccurate references regarding the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s position on this important issue. Please refer to the attached letter that we recently sent to Congressman Garret Graves for our official position on H.R. 3094 and Gulf red snapper management.”
In that letter to Graves, Wiley stated the FWC had what he called “robust” discussion on HR 3094, and came out in support of the current measure.
Wiley further stated in the letter to Bishop, “As a matter of practice, we do not attempt to convey the position of other states regarding these kind of issues. We respect that other states can and should speak for themselves in a manner that accurately conveys their positions and concerns. We would hope that other states would reciprocate this same level of respect and cooperation.”
So Melancon falsely claimed that his counterpart in Florida is against the bill and attached a number of $40 million that Florida’s FWC would eat as a cost of assuming red snapper management.
Where did that $40 million number come from?
Well, here’s where some digging produces some dirt. Yesterday, Ben Raines had a long piece at AL.com on the Environmental Defense Fund, described as a “rogue” environmental group which has created the feudal system in America’s commercial fisheries by successfully pushing for “catch shares,” and how EDF is now imposing the same closed marketplace in recreational fisheries through networks of incumbents they’ve stitched together.
Critics blame the Environmental Defense Fund effort for hurting fishing communities on every coast, from Kake, Alaska, and Gloucester, Mass., to Bayou La Batre, Alabama.
The group has pushed a system that turns the right to catch a pound of fish into a private commodity that can be bought and sold like a share of stock on Wall Street. The government then gives these shares to individual commercial fishermen, granting them the right to catch that fish, or lease or sell the right to catch it to another fisherman.
EDF has been profoundly successful at persuading regulators that commercial fisheries should be managed through these so called “catch share” systems. Now the organization is turning its sights on recreational fishermen, particularly when it comes to red snapper.
The environmental group likes catch shares because they put hard limits on the number of fishermen in a given fishery, and on the number of fish caught. Instead of an open season for commercial harvest, fishermen in a catch share system are allowed to fish anytime they like, for instance when the weather is nice, until they use up their shares. And the system provides a steady supply of red snapper for market year round, instead of just during a finite fishing season.
But catch share systems are also blamed for knocking thousands of fishermen out of the industry, usually because of inequities in how the shares were originally distributed by the government.
And here’s some interesting background from the article about how the advocacy which produced the catch-share status quo came about…
As Lubchenco pushed for catch shares from the top, EDF staff members simultaneously organized and funded the creation of several non-profit activist groups made up of small numbers of commercial fishermen on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Critics say the move was intended to create the impression of grass roots support for catch shares that didn’t actually exist.
The leadership of these non-profits often consists of the fishermen who control the largest portion of a given fishery, who are also the folks who benefitted most from the switch to catch shares.
For instance, Buddy Guindon, the founder and executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, says he accounts for 30 percent of all the red snapper and deepwater grouper landed in the Gulf. His group, the Shareholders’ Alliance, received $623,000 from EDF between 2010 and 2014, the most recent years that records are available, according to the federal 990 tax forms filed by the organizations.
Likewise with another group tied to the EDF called the Charter Fishermen’s Alliance, which purports to represent charter boat captains. The charter boat group was funded entirely in its first year from a $48,000 donation from the Shareholders’ Alliance, using money that came from EDF.
“They work hard to make the public and politicians believe they are representing the majority of charter for hire boats when in reality they represent maybe 200 of 1,300 federally permitted owners,” said Bob Zales, president of the National Association of Charterboat Operators. “Through EDF and their puppet associations such as the Charter Fishermen’s Association, there is much political lobbying and at least yearly, sometimes more often, trips to D.C. to garner support for catch shares in all fisheries, commercial, charter, and private recreational with stamps.”
Further, Raines’ piece explains how the move is on to impose catch-share on recreational fishing for red snapper…
Now, with 15 of the largest commercial fisheries in the United States managed this way, EDF is working to spread catch shares to recreational fishermen. A pilot program supported by EDF in the Gulf of Mexico let about 20 charter boats – known as “head boats” that typically carry 30 to 60 anglers per day — operate under a catch share system for two years. Those boats were allowed to fish year round, which caused a lot of friction with the rest of the charter fleet of about 1,300 boats. The bulk of the charter fleet was only allowed to fish for 46 days in the year.
But the EDF’s most controversial proposal has been for a system that would require private recreational anglers to have a harvest tag for each fish they catch.
EDF documents examined by AL.com make plain that the organization has envisioned spreading catch shares to people fishing for pleasure since at least 2009. That year, internal reports touting EDF’s accomplishments state that the organization’s work in the Gulf “will form the foundation for a for-hire IFQ and harvest tags for private anglers.”
This notion of requiring tags for families headed out in their boats to catch a few fish for the dinner table has proven highly contentious. Especially so when a fleet of just 400 commercial vessels is allowed to catch 5 million pounds of snapper a year while recreational anglers have suffered under annual snapper seasons as short as 10 days in recent years.
While EDF officials tried to distance themselves from the idea of recreational harvest tags in a recent interview, state officials in Alabama say the group actively lobbied for such tags in private meetings with regulators. When pressed, EDF officials said harvest tags are one of several options for the recreational fishery, which they described as “out of control and very poorly known and very poorly managed.”
EDF, as it turns out, is funded with $50 million from the Walton family – and you might be aware that Wal-Mart is one of the largest retailers (if not THE largest retailer) of seafood in the country. Having vertically-integrated control of the entire industry is pretty good business for Wal-Mart, even if it does put a lot of fishermen out of business.
So with all that as background, let’s go back to that $40 million figure Melancon was touting as a reason why his counterpart in Florida wasn’t behind Graves’ bill when in fact FWC actually supports the bill.
The Louisiana Sportsman got wind of these letters flying back and forth between Melancon, Rep. Bishop and the Florida wildlife and fisheries people, and pressed Melancon on his figures. What they got back from him doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence…
Wiley did not return a phone call requesting comment Friday, but FWC public information specialist Amanda Nalley said in an email that her office never put out an estimate on Florida’s costs to manage red snapper via social media.
“The $40 million number did not come from us …,” Nalley said. “We do not have any further comment on this issue.”
In a phone interview Friday afternoon, when asked to explain where he got the $40 million figure from, Melancon said he stood by his letter of Sept. 15.
“If you read my letter, you see where it came from,” Melancon said. “But let me just suggest or say that if that number is wrong, I apologize to Florida for that.
“However, I would suggest that you ask Mr. Wiley and the Florida people, ‘What is that number?’ Because the number has been talked about.”
When pressed on where he got the $40 million estimate in his letter, Melancon said the main emphasis of his letter was that Louisiana and now Florida both have concerns with H.R. 3094.
“Let me just suggest that when I tried to get a (red snapper management cost) number for Louisiana and went about it as scientifically and as best we could, we put a number out and people called it a lie,” he said. “Where I am right now is Florida and Louisiana agree that Garret Graves’ bill in its present form is not an acceptable piece of legislation.
“The numbers that you want from Florida — again I apologize if my numbers are wrong. I got them from people in Florida, I got them from an article in Florida, I got them from social media in Florida. If they’re not official, then I apologize. But Florida can give you the number.”
So where did Melancon get that figure? From the Environmental Defense Fund, of course. A blog post at EDF’s website written by someone named Priya Sundareshan came up with that $40 million figure by extrapolating it from the $10 million Melancon claims red snapper management in his agency’s hands will cost; this isn’t exactly hard science being done.
How much would the other Gulf States have to pay for red snapper management? Here’s a simple estimate, using LDWF’s numbers as a starting point and making the following assumptions:
- We assume that the costs of enforcement and collection of fisheries-dependent data depends on the relative length of Gulf of Mexico coastline of each state. To make it simple, we approximate that Texas has the same coastline length as Louisiana, Florida has twice Louisiana’s coastline, and Alabama and Mississippi are each one-eighth of Louisiana.
- We assume each state will still likely be required to employ the same number of biologists and staff as Louisiana estimates in order to perform the necessary data collection and analysis for the other categories.
Therefore, we estimate that the cost of red snapper management over five years to each state will be:
Thus, the combined five-year cost of H.R. 3094 for the five Gulf States would be $111,475,000, with the highest price tag being almost $40 million in Florida.
This is the basis of Melancon’s policy-making arguments. No, really – this is your government at work.
And you are within your rights to wonder exactly who it is that controls the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries with Charlie Melancon as their puppet.
It might be the Sea Lords, and it might be the Environmental Defense Fund. Or functionally, the two groups might be exactly the same.