Jeremy Alford

Oyster program off to bumpy start

by Jeremy Alford

A new permitting process meant to keep out-of-state commercial fishermen from encroaching on Louisiana-based oyster harvesters is running into administrative hurdles, according to officials with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The department began selling their new oyster seed ground vessel permits two weeks ago, but there are already serious problems.

For starters, the complicated guidelines for the process approved by the Legislature earlier this year could actually be keeping Louisianians from entering the industry. “It’s one of the most complicated, difficult situations that I’ve seen,” says Patrick Banks, a manager with the department’s marine fisheries division. The permits are required for any boats that commercial fishermen intend on using to harvest oysters from the state’s public oyster seed grounds or reservations. There are exceptions for the public areas in Calcasieu and Sabine lakes.

Banks says part of the problem involves the bevy of often-convoluted restrictions applicants must overcome to obtain a permit to harvest these oysters. “We anticipate that there are folks working in the oyster industry, but don’t own a boat, or others that just purchased a boat, that won’t be able to get a permit,” Banks says. For instance, there are three ways a vessel owner can qualify to purchase a new $15 permit. They must prove that they owned a vessel that was properly licensed and has related trip-ticket reports, or records of what was harvested, for the period of Jan. 1, 2004, to May 31, 2007; or they must prove that the boat they purchased or constructed between Jan. 1, 2004, and April 30, 2008, has trip ticket information from the time of construction or purchase to July 1, 2008; or, finally, they must prove that the vessel that was being constructed was at least 50 percent complete by July 1, 2008.

Members of the oyster industry, largely from Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, lobbied lawmakers to adopt the limited-access policy. The overarching goal was to help storm-weary fishermen impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita hold onto their jobs. “The industry wanted this,” Banks says. “We’re just trying to make it work.” The law calls for an appeals board to be formed to give applicants a second chance, Banks said, but that panel is still in the developmental phase.

Mike Voisin of Houma, president of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, says industry representatives he has communicated with have also expressed frustration. The intent may have been honorable, he adds, but the outcome is something else. “The best laid plans of mice and men don’t always turn out as expected. There are challenges,” Voisin says. “I’m fearful that there are people falling between the cracks that should be getting permits but aren’t.”

Banks says he has received word from some fishermen that say they’re prepared to lobby their lawmakers for a repeal during next year’s regular session.