Our view: Commercial fishermen need our support

In Dulac and Golden Meadow, Chauvin and Pointes-aux-Chenes, shrimpers are readying their vessels for a new season, hoping that nature and the markets will smile on their efforts, and provide not only a bountiful crop but prices that will support their livelihoods.

Like the shrimpers, crabbers and oystermen have faced significant challenges, and all are working hard as always to keep afloat. The visible signs of their industry, located as they are in communities where many of us don’t spend time unless recreating, go unseen by most of us. But they are there, day in and day out. They know that their numbers have dwindled, that their infrastructure – the packing houses to which many sell their harvests – is dwindling as well.

Their industry, more than any other in this region, has been subject over many years to suppositions that affect policy. Criticism that fishermen are less than honest about their earnings to lessen their tax liability is legend. Suggestions that they became overnight millionaires as a result of claims made after the catastrophic consequences of the BP oil spill, a blatant form of victim-blaming largely perpetrated by the British press, are largely unfounded. To be awarded a million, you had to make a million to begin with, usually. And few of the hard-working men and women of our bayou fisheries are making a million or anything close to it.

To say that fishermen don’t cheat would, of course, be disingenuous and an exercise in the worst form of denial. But adherence to long-standing overstatement accepted as fact would be equally irresponsible.

Anyone who is familiar with the facts regarding our fisheries and our fishing families knows that they have long been in peril due to lopsided trade practices that have flooded U.S. markets – shrimp in particular – automatically handicapping them in terms of what prices they can expect to be paid.

It is just for such reasons, as well as the risks to production that annually occur due to conditions of weather or nature, that Louisiana has allowed some measure of mercy, by exempting commercial fishermen from state sales taxes on equipment and supplies that are critical to their trade. Trawls, GPS systems, safety equipment and other necessities all come under that category.

With Louisiana’s finances in shambles, a state of affairs for which people in suits and leather shoes rather than jeans and white boots are to blame, the legislature passed and the governor signed a new structure for sales taxes that include an increase. Long-standing exemptions were eliminated to varying degrees, at least for the time being. Tax exemptions were retained by farmers, who like the fishermen must depend on a fickle ecosystem and fluctuating markets. Fertilizer, seeds, tractors and other supplies and equipment remain exempt under the new sales tax scheme. But commercial fishermen were thrown to the wolves, their exemptions suspended, in one of the cruelest legislative acts in recent history. Crawfish and catfish farmers, on the other hand, retained theirs, just as did the farmers of the land. One can only think that the legislators who were members of the conference committee that assembled the sales tax package may have been thinking of the myths and half-truths that have circulated about our fishermen for years in making their decision, which was thrust in front of lawmakers as a whole at the tail end of the special session with a tight deadline. Members of the coastal legislative delegation have vowed to correct this injustice, and we are praying that they are successful in doing so.

As reported in this week’s newspaper, fishing families asked local parish council members to consider suspending collection of the local sales tax on their essential purchases in Terrebonne, subject to certain conditions. One would be that the parish at the very least, would do so only for people with commercial fishing licenses who make at least 50 percent of their income from fishing, with an even higher threshold if necessary.

If for some reason the legislative delegation finds itself unable to sustain an amendment to reinstate the state exemption, we urge the Terrebonne Parish Council to stand by its belief in our fishers, and confer the relief they have requested. •