Most of Louisiana’s shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico is bordered by a half-sunk prairie that provides food and shelter for marine life and helps generate some of the nation’s greatest fisheries. These renewable fishery resources are said to be held in “public trust,” which means in essence that they’re owned by everyone. And when everyone shares something valuable, there’s always somebody who thinks they’re entitled to more than anyone else. — Robert Fritchey
“Let the Good Times Roll: Louisiana Cashes in its Chips with the 1995 Net Ban” follows NF correspondent Robert Fritchey’s 2015 e-book “Missing Redfish,” which was the first in his Gulf Wars series, a historical state-by-state account of the Coastal Conservation Association’s mid-1990s push to drive net fishermen from the entire Gulf of Mexico.
“Let the Good Times Roll” documents the sportsmen’s campaign in Louisiana, then tracks some of the developments that have transpired in the Bayou State’s fisheries in the decades since.
The beginning is described in the book’s introduction:
In the early 1990s, the Florida Conservation Association demanded that the Sunshine State’s fishery managers ban most commercial fishing nets. Both the Marine Fisheries Commission and the Florida Legislature refused on the grounds that there was no scientific basis to do so. The FCA’s leaders then gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot and took their case directly to the people.
A prime mover behind the initiative owned the slick and glossy Florida Sportsman magazine, one of the most widely circulated publications in the state, and an invaluable platform for “educating” sport fishermen and the general public about commercial fishing. In November 1994, Florida’s voters overwhelmingly approved the FCA’s constitutional amendment, which banned most finfishing nets and shrimp trawls from the state’s coastal waters.
The FCA had downplayed the impact of its proposed ban on the commercial industry, informing voters that only a few hundred of the roughly 5,000 net licenses issued by the state of Florida were held by truly professional fishermen. After the referendum, however, the Coastal Conservation Association began to play up the threat of an invasion by “5,000” of Florida’s displaced fishermen into the waters of neighboring Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. To head them off, leaders of the Houston-based group proposed that those states all ban nets as well.
The three central-Gulf states therefore grappled simultaneously with the issue in 1995. While the CCA tried to stampede their respective management bodies into banning nets, the biologists in each of those states’ fishery agencies steadfastly maintained that there was no scientific rationale to do so.
In “Sportsman’s Paradise,” that wouldn’t prove much of a deterrent.
Some years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the California-based Center for Citizen Initiatives partnered with the Slidell (La.) Rotary Club to organize a tour for a group of Russian entrepreneurs; they hoped to show their guests how to create new production, and how democracy worked in the land of the free. So the Rotarians brought them into, of all places, the Louisiana State Legislature.
It was the spring of 1995, and the curious Russians arrived just in time to hear John Hainkel, the senior senator from New Orleans, exhorting his colleagues to “Ban the Nets!” As for the repeated declarations by the state’s professional fishery managers that there was no rational reason to do so, the senator asked his peers, “Since when has knowledge been a requirement for what we do up here?”
In Alabama and Mississippi, resolving the netting controversy fell to specialized panels with appointed members who were at least partially buffered from political pressure. But in Louisiana, the elected politicians themselves would decide who’d get the fish. As frightening as that prospect seemed to commercial fishermen, the recent referendum in Florida had demonstrated that it could have been worse.
“It puts us in a better position, competitively, than Florida, because there, the other side had to convince the people of the state that they were voting in their best interest,” Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board executive director Karl Turner told National Fisherman magazine. “That kind of a campaign is extremely expensive to put on, and extremely expensive for commercial fishermen to counter.
“So we’re in a better position in that respect, because we have 150 legislators, and we’re not having to put together a media campaign to reach all 4 million people in the state of Louisiana.”
However, all of the legislators would be up for re-election a few months after the 1995 session, which didn’t help the fishermen.
“Y’all have science and biology on your side,” Sam Theriot, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, admonished net fishermen. “But the other side — the ‘sports’ — have money and numbers, and that’s what I need to get elected.”
“There’s plenty of reason to be scared,” a biologist with the state’s fishery management agency told the fishermen, before the session opened. “I’ve talked to a number of legislators, and they know what’s right. Well, they sense what’s right. But they feel that they can’t do what’s right because of all the pressure on ’em.”
Whether it was a direct request from his district’s Boss Hogg — who’d financed his campaign and thereafter kept him on virtual retainer — or a bombardment of beseeching, even threatening, phone calls from the Gulf Coast Conservation Association’s lower echelon, the average legislator was under far more pressure to appease his local constituents in the short term than he was to take the high road in the long. And that’s assuming he was personally neutral on the issue and needed any convincing.
In Sportsman’s Paradise, many of the state’s legislators, including most members of the key House and Senate Natural Resource committees, were anglers themselves, some of whom enjoyed being taken fishing by the Gulf Coast Conservation Association and the group’s partners, the charter-boat captains.
After the 1994 Annual Gulf Coast Conservation Association Legislators’ Invitational Fishing Rodeo, House Natural Resources Committee chairman Theriot gushed in the group’s newsletter, “The best Legislators’ Fishing Rodeo yet! The fishing was great, but the fellowship was superior. Thanks for everything!”
To keep their nets in the water, Louisiana’s fishermen had only to get an acceptable “compromise” bill past these folks. And then the fate of one of the nation’s most prolific fisheries would fall to flamboyant gambling Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.
Parting Snapshots: Pounds & Dollars
In the decade after Louisiana’s Legislature banned the use of most commercial fishing nets, wild-caught finfish naturally became more difficult to obtain: From 1994 — the year before Louisiana enacted its net ban — until the end of 2014 — the most recent year for which harvest data were available — landings of the state’s nine more traditional species declined by nearly 75 percent, from 22.7 million pounds to 6.2 million.
As for the leading 11 coastal species that were considered to be underutilized, and which might have grown 50-fold to support a fishery of at least 25 million pounds, their landings instead plummeted nearly 96 percent, from just under 468,000 pounds in 1994, to 20,000 pounds in 2014.
As the amount of fish harvested by commercial fishermen declined, the number caught by recreational fishermen increased.
Comparatively mild winters and a blend of other favorable environmental factors — not the least of which was the increasing area of available habitat along South Louisiana’s deteriorating coastline — all aided in keeping fishery populations sound.
While commercial-fishing-obsessed sportsmen would faithfully attribute the increase to the absence of the dreaded nets, bitter commercial fishermen would just as naturally counter that the recreational fishery was simply inhaling the fish that they could no longer catch.
Of all the possible variables leading to the increase, the one that was perhaps best documented was the growth in sport fishing.
In the same session that the Louisiana Legislature decimated the production of coastal finfish, for nutrition, it created a license that authorized sport-fishing guides to operate as businesses. From the 68 issued in 1995 — the first year they were available — the number of charter-boat licenses increased 1,200 percent, to 825 in 2014.
Like commercial fishermen, the guides stayed on the fish from day to day, which boosted the success rates of their mostly out-of-state clients over that of the majority of private anglers who preferred to fish on their own. But whether they were flying in from California or driving to their local boat launch, Baby Boomers and their kids were pushing sport fishing into uncharted waters.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Recreational Fishing Survey, the number of fishing trips made by anglers in Louisiana — for all saltwater species, including those found offshore — more than tripled in the three decades between 1981 — the first year the agency began to collect such data — and 2013 — when NOAA completed its most recent survey. Anglers made an estimated 1.4 million trips in 1981, and over 4.6 million in 2013; in 2004 sportsmen made an all-time record 5.2 million fishing trips.
By Robert Fritchey
New Moon Press, 2017 Softcover 270 pp., $17.95;
Kindle ebook $9.99