May 15, 2013 06:00 AM

Lafayette now has inroads to state money for seafood promotions and marketing.

Lafayette now has inroads to state money for seafood promotions and marketing. By Jeremy Alford

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Henderson Mayor Sherbin Collette and Lafayette seafood entrepreneur Frank Randol are coming into their new state positions just in time for a giant crawfish-shaped birthday cake. An appropriate, and possibly symbolic, treat for the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, to which both were appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal in March. With a born-on date of 1984, the board celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.

And what does the board get for that special milestone? More influence from southwest Louisiana, for one. The owner of Collette's Seafood in St. Martin Parish, Collette will serve as a representative for the wild catfish industry. Randol, a seafood processor and owner of Randol's Restaurant, will be repping the crawfish industry. Their challenge is to crack through the special treatment traditionally afforded to shrimp and oysters, whose harvesters and processors pay the most fees into the board's kitty.  

There could have been a third regional voice on the seafood board as well, but the political stars were not yet aligned when lawmakers sunk the effort in early May. Rep. Vincent Pierre, D-Lafayette, met resistance in his first hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee. His bill would have added a new member to the board based on a list of recommendations from UL's B.I. Moody College of Business Administration, specifically the hospitality department.

Photo by Robin May
Frank Randol

The legislation was backed by the UL Foundation and the Louisiana Restaurant Association, among others. Ewell Smith, executive director of the seafood board, says it made sense to create a new relationship with the hospitality school, especially since the board already works with university culinary schools in New Orleans and Thibodaux. "This is an opportunity to add input from Lafayette and the western part of the state," he told the committee.

Some coastal lawmakers turned a cold shoulder to Pierre's effort, chiefly because the other bills addressing the board's structure were pending and unresolved. Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, suggested to Pierre that his timing couldn't have been worse. "This kind of came from left field," Harrison says, adding that negotiations on the other bills had been ongoing for months.

During the regular session that adjourns June 6, lawmakers have been debating whether to move the seafood board out from under the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. One proposal would have recreated the seafood board as its own state agency, but lawmakers stopped it short. An earlier version of the same bill would have given complete oversight to the Wildlife and Fisheries secretary. Another proposes shifting it to the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism and giving blanket oversight to the lieutenant governor.

Lawmakers don't know quite what to do with the seafood board. Wasn't long ago that few even cared. But that was when the board only had a $300,000 annual budget, supported by self-imposed fees from the commercial seafood industry. It was enough to buy a few national ads to promote Louisiana's products and gobble up space at big trade shows. Today, however, the seafood board is swimming in deeper waters.

After the 2010 oil spill, a new day dawned when BP granted the board $32 million, of which $17 million has been spent to date. Among the more controversial considerations, which never came to fruition, was a plan to pay, at least initially, $5 million for the naming rights to the former NBA Hornets playing facility. "That's about $1 million per win," says Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Robert Barham, recalling the doomed deal.
More serious were the struggles from within the board, which started coming to light last year when Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, passed legislation reshaping the board and its bylaws. Former board members complained about internal decisions over who was able to attend trade shows and resulting conflicts that spilled over into opinions and rulings from the state Ethics Board. Allegations were also made about the board's former leadership using marketing opportunities for personal gain. Chabert is pushing the bill to give the board to CRT and Dardenne.

Allen Gibson of Dulac, a seafood board member representing the American Shrimp Processors Association, says he has yet to see how some of the marketing activities that were recommended to the board have resulted in more sales for the industry. "I don't see where we benefitted the industry in the way we were supposed to," says Gibson, vice president of Tidelands Seafood Company and president of Driftwoods Farms.

He adds he was expecting to see a bump in dockside sales or new clients for processors. "We did a lot of flashy things, but we did not take care of our base," Gibson says.  

Gibson is the rare holdover from the old board, since Chabert's 2012 bill shook things up. He joins Collette and Randol, who should be eager to blow out those candles on the big birthday cake. For a board that still has $15 million from the BP grant and $300,000 in other revenues each year, the new Acadiana voices could help bring more attention to the seafood staples of southwest Louisiana, like crawfish and catfish.

While the Legislature is still figuring out how the new seafood board should be governed, Randol told lawmakers recently that he thought it was "positive" that some proposals wanted to ensure the board had control over its finances and the hiring and firing of executive directors. "The new board needs to get quickly up to speed on issues it must address to benefit not just the state, but the whole Gulf seafood community," he says.

The new members will officially be sworn in later this month, with officer elections held not long after. Currently, both Randol and Collette are barred from becoming officers, as candidates must put in time on the board first. They will be working alongside representatives from the crab, alligator, shrimp, oyster and saltwater finfish industries. The board also has representatives who are experts in marketing - that's celebrated Chef John Folse - and retailing. "The new board is filled with members that have expertise in all areas of seafood," says Randol, who has dedicated more than 40 years to the crawfish industry himself.

Debates between all of these fisheries are nothing new. But the fresh start being offered to the seafood board this year could bring about a new tone. And it may be starting with the likes of Randol. "It is more important than ever for the new board to come together as one," he says, "to form a cohesiveness that will benefit all of the state's seafood communities."

Despite the tense debates that have been transpiring in Baton Rouge, Barham, for one, has still managed to find humor in the situation while offering what he calls a "truism" in politics. It certainly applies to the controversy surrounding the board and sheds light on what its new structure - and the remaining BP money - could mean for Acadiana and its commercial fisheries. "Money is the answer," Barham says. "Now what is the question?"

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