Officials pitch in after trawlers caught

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Some local shrimpers ran into a technology glitch while working Iberia Parish waters, resulting in losses to parts of their catch and the potential of costly fines.

But intervention by a state legislator and agreement to help out by a prosecutor and state fishing enforcement officials gave the story a mostly happy ending.

Douglas Lafont of Larose was among boat captains who plied the waters of Vermillion Parish July 7, staying on what they thought was the legal side of a state closure to shrimpers.

Waters off of Terrebonne and Lafourche were already closed to fishermen when Lafont left a Cocodrie dock. He used his cellular phone to keep tabs on any other rule charges, by checking the Louisiana Department of Widlife and Fisheries Web site on daily basis. No changes beyond the Terrebonne closure appeared.

What Lafont didn’t know was that state officials had ordered a closure of western waters while he was en route.

State officials have since said that an employee failed to post the information on their site.

“We were at Sycamore Point about 1500 yards from the dock in New Iberia,” Lafont said, when he was boarded by state agents.

They informed him that the waters were closed to shrimpers, and Lafont looked back in disbelief, as did other shrimpers who were boarded as well.

Agents were sympathetic, Lafont said, and appeared to believe him. They did not seize his catch, but what was on the deck – he had just lifted his nets and let the shrimp drop there for picking and sorting – was ordered overboard.

“That was a shame, to just get rid of all that good shrimp,” Lafont said.

Tickets were issued – authorities estimate about 18 in all. Lafont and other fishermen faced court dates and fines, as well as in some cases the potential of further loss. Those who may have had prior Wildlife and Fisheries violations could have been struck from the role of commercial fishermen, and kept off the water for months or even years.

Some of the cited fishermen contacted elected officials while others complained to dock owners or processors they trade with.

Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, got involved, and contacted Wildlife and Fisheries officials directly.

“Some of these guys called me and said this is a real injustice, that they cared about their reputations,” Harrison said. “They told me they would go to court if they had to, though they didn’t want to because they needed to fish.”

Harrison spoke with Col. Jeff Mayne, who heads up enforcement at the state agency.

“We were able to talk to the authorities in charge,” Harrison said. “Jeff Mayne has become a real breath of fresh air as head of enforcement. He has an attitude that is better than previous administrations. He tried to understand their plight.”

Harrison then contacted District Attorney John Phillip Haney of the 16th Judicial District.

“I told him we are working it out and he said if the state didn’t post the change then it goes against the rights of those people who are trying to earn an honest living,” Harrison said. “He told me he said he would never prosecute someone for something where they were not aware of the rules and regulations.”

For his part, Haney said it was clear to him that something was wrong and that action had to be taken, by closing out the cases against the fishermen.

“If the charges are not warranted you decline prosecution,” Haney said. “Based on my conversations it appears there is no way these guys intentionally intended to violate the closed area. They did everything they could to determine it was open. We have got to find in a case whether we have the requisite intent. We have to do that with every file that comes into our office. Rep. Harrison felt it was something we needed to know. His office gathered the information. So you’ve got the system working together to make sure the right thing is done.”

LDWF Deputy Secretary Randy Pausina said Monday that after his agency’s own review it was determined “that the fishermen were relying on inaccurate information provided on the department’s website and in press releases.”

“LDWF regrets this mistake and has taken all necessary steps to bolster its internal review process prior to dissemination of this type of information to ensure that our website and press releases provide the public with the most timely and accurate information possible,” Pausina said.

A trawl boat glides through the water waiting to test its luck at a worthwhile catch. Local shrimpers were able to get out of a LDWF violation this week after it was learned that a technology glitch had occurred, which several boat captains were not aware of.