The silver lining within covid-19’s dark cloud included cleaner air, unlittered roadsides and, for Mississippi’s handful of haul seiners, the suspension of a Legislature that was on the brink of wiping out their industry.

A pair of identical bills in both the Senate and the House of the 2020 Legislature sought to push the seiners at least half a mile off Cat Island, the last remaining island they could still fish.

“If they take Cat Island, all that’s left is one other little inside place where there are so many recreational fishermen and all that it gets run over eight or 10 times a day — there’s nothin’ there. And that’s what they’re wantin’ to leave us with,” said haul seiner Martin Young.

The state’s other four barrier islands have been off-limits to commercial fishermen since the 1990s, when managers of the federal Gulf Islands National Seashore pushed them at least one mile away; Cat Island is shared between federal, state and private owners.

Rep. Timmy Ladner

Rep. Timmy Ladner

“The legislation would make it harder for the average Mississippi consumer to obtain fresh, local sustainable seafood," said Ryan Bradley, executive director of the Mississippi Commercial Fishermen United. "It would be a real food security problem for a state that has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the entire nation.”

The Coastal Conservation Association’s House Bill 561, sponsored by Rep. Timmy Ladner, passed 118-3 on March 11. The sportsmen’s Senate Bill 2720, sponsored by Sens. Mike Thompson, Scott DeLano and Phillip Moran, passed 50-2 on March 10. The bills had moved to the opposite chambers, but the Legislature shut down before they could be voted on.

Sen. Mike Thompson

Mississippi’s Commission on Marine Resources, the specialized panel charged with managing the state’s coastal resources, opposed the bills in an April 7 resolution to the Legislature: “The two legislative bills will unfairly and inequitably restrict the rights and equal access of the commercial fishing industry to the marine resources of the state of Mississippi,” wrote the five-member panel.

The CCA narrowly missed its target in 2018 when the commission was unable to break a tie vote.

“Why have a commission if (the legislators are) gonna overrule what they’re doing?" asked Young.

Seiners won’t learn whether returning legislators would be sobered by the CMR’s statement — or the recently heightened emphasis on food security — until after the legislature reconvenes on May 7.

A collection of stories from guest authors.

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