Fishermen fear Basin closing

Dean Wilson, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper director, right, said a way of life is being threatened as crawfishermen are being denied access to areas of the Atchafalaya Basin during a meeting Tuesday at the fire station in Belle River. Attorney Joseph “Buzzy” Joy, left, has represented several crawfishermen cited for trespassing in the basin. Mike Bienvenu, center, president of Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association – West, said the attorneys are willing to walk through fire for crawfishermen to keep navigable waterways open.
(The Daily Review Photo by Preston Gill)

Mike Meche said fishermen are trying to “protect our way of life …” at the meeting of the Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West on Tuesday in Belle River.
(The Daily Review Photo by Preston Gill)

About 200 people, mostly crawfishermen, assembled to discuss how to fight back as they say their livelihoods are threatened in the Atchafalaya Basin.
The meeting at the fire station, sponsored by Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West, portrayed access to the basin as a David versus Goliath issue pitting them against moneyed interests who make an illegitimate claim to waterways.
Dean Wilson, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper director, said he has received death threats and another crawfisherman claimed two shots were fired in the direction of his boat while he and his two sons were in the boat.
At issue is whether the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin are navigable waterways that are open to commercial use, which the U.S. and state constitution say should be public, Wilson and others said.
Attorney Joseph “Buzzy” Joy, a Morgan City native practicing law in Lafayette, has represented several crawfishermen cited for trespassing in the basin. He said in one such legal battle, after a 13-day trial on a trespassing charge, they successfully established Lake Rycade as a navigable waterway.
“Since then the issue of navigable waterways has not been raised in the basin,” Joy said of subsequent legal challenges.
Mike Meche, who said he was shot at with his sons, said fishermen are trying to “protect our way of life … These are navigable waterways of the United States of America … that we have been making a living on for 100 years. I am never on land from the time I put in my boat until the time I take out. Don’t let them change your vocabulary and say it is something that it is not.”
Those who claim the water bottoms as their private property are making false claims, Wilson said.
“They would like to do this all over the basin,” Wilson said. “But they can’t show you any boundaries … They have blocked off navigable waterways with dams and they have been quit-claiming for decades.”
Meche said a handful of people are exploiting the basin and are “trying to keep us from making a living.”
“When some guy in a three-piece suit, sitting behind a desk wants to keep me from feeding my family then I get upset,” Meche said.
Gordon Schoeffler, another attorney with Joseph Joy and Associates, said, “The very fact that you are out there making a living on the water proves the point that it is a navigable waterway. That is why it is important to them to keep you out.”
Schoeffler said what happened in the marsh where recreational fishermen in the past decades had access taken from them was similar to what is happening in the basin with people claiming the water bottoms as private property.
Wilson said Atchafalaya Basinkeeper has successfully intervened, with suits or threatened suits, to force the U.S. Corps of Engineers to quit allowing companies and individuals to dam off canals or put in structures and facilities without permits.
Wilson said companies and individuals often operate with what he called “illegal permits.” At times the corps simply issued after-the-fact permits or issued permits for one use and turned a blind eye to when the use is expanded, he said.
“Our fishing areas are disappearing,” Wilson said. “People are claiming ownership of land that is owned by the United States government.”
Joy said rather than the state asserting its ownership and possibly issuing leases that would add revenue to the state, it has been complicit in allowing private individuals to make assertions of ownership and sell their own leases. Those leases not only enrich those individuals, rather than the state, but are being used in an attempt to keep people from making a living in the manner they have done for decades, he said.
It is important for fishermen and others to unite in resistance to being forced from waters they and their families have used to harvest crawfish sold and enjoyed on the tables of people throughout the state, nation and world, said Mike Bienvenu, president of Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.
The meeting was for informational purposes and to encourage fishermen to pool their efforts in defense of their right to continue to fish the basin. Bienvenu encouraged the fishermen to join the two organizations holding the meeting.
The people who make the laws and enforce existing laws are influenced by numbers when it comes to who they listen to, Bienvenu said. Membership in the association gives fishermen access to legal representation if they are cited for trespassing, he said.
“These guys are willing to walk through fire for you,” Bienvenu said of the Joseph Joy and Associates attorneys.
Schoeffler advised the fishermen to make sure they do not become provoked into fisticuffs during encounters on the water. He said if they are ticketed, they should accept the citation and then call the attorneys to handle the issue.
Bienvenu said the legal assistance the firm is offering is essential.
“The only thing they understand is lawsuits,” he said of their opponents.
Further information on the issue or on Atchafalaya Basinkeeper can be found at www.basinkeeper.org or calling Wilson at 225-685-9439. The attorneys can be reached at 337-232-8123.

By PRESTON GILL pgill@dailyreview.com

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