Louisiana Policies Threaten Sport Fishing

The majority of the state's teeming marsh waters could be off-limits to anglers

O

PINION Odds are most of us have seen the license plates: “Louisiana, Sportsman’s Paradise.” Or should that be: “Louisiana, Sportsmen Unwelcome”? That sure seems to be the message delivered by the state House of Representatives when, in mid-April, it voted that landowners who control 80 percent of the state’s productive coastal marsh can tell recreational fishermen: Stay out!

An angler holds a beautiful redfish in the Louisiana marsh.
How many visitors fishing here are unknowingly trespassing on private "land"? Louisiana's unique laws dating back more than a century make that scenario likely.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

From the perspective of coastal sport-fishing enthusiasts, Louisiana is unique in many respects. On the plus side, there’s the mind-bogglingly vast productive coastal marsh, 3 million acres of it. Some of the best fishing in the world for redfish, seatrout, flounder, largemouth bass and other game fish attracts anglers from all over to these estuaries.

But it turns out there’s a monster in this marsh that has recently begun rearing a very ugly head, threatening the state’s economically and culturally vital recreational fishery.

Consider a few facts to understand what we're dealing with:
1. Of Louisiana's millions of acres of inshore waters, 80 percent are considered private.

2. Landowners in the state can legally deny public access to their "lands" (here, coastal waters).

3. The state of Louisiana does not require private land to be posted (so it's legally up to anglers to know whether the often-remote ­marshlands they're fishing are private property).

4. The state offers no truly viable means to determine what is or is not public.

5. Trespassing in Louisiana is a felony (which could cost fishing guides their licenses).

This situation is as unique to Louisiana as is the great marsh itself, for a couple of reasons.

First, unlike other states, Louisiana does not recognize a public-trust doctrine — rooted in ancient Roman law and part of modern law in the United States — of “navigable servitude.” That basically requires submerged lands to be managed for the use and benefit of the public. Historically, this meant for commerce and fishing, but for decades has included recreation and the protection of fish, wildlife and habitat. But based on laws from the early 1800s, even navigable coastal waters in Louisiana are largely considered private.

Beyond that, the situation is further ­complicated by the distressing reality of the state annually losing shocking amounts of coastal lands to subsidence (land sinking) and seawater intrusion, leaving many private landowners scrambling to protect what they own and pay taxes on — even though much of their land is now covered by tidal waters.

Bay boat navigates a narrow channel connecting bodies of water in Louisiana's marsh.
Narrow channels through the marsh, like this one that a bay boat is using to reach more open water, are often private. Whether they're posted or not (and most aren't), traversing them is, legally, trespassing.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

If Louisiana followed navigable servitude, there wouldn’t be much of an issue, since pretty much wherever a boat can float, it could legally fish. And that has long been the assumption among most anglers. But increasing friction with landowners, leading to hostile exchanges, legal citations and threats of arrest, has given this problem prominence.

That prominence surged earlier this year when B.A.S.S. announced to its half-million members that it would cease holding tournaments in Louisiana until or unless this problem is resolved.

In response to that dramatic announcement, as well as a growing clamor among anglers and the state’s valuable sport-fishing industry, a bill by state Rep. Kevin Pearson, HB 391, would have brought Louisiana in line with most states by declaring that “running waters ... remain the property of the state ... whether they flow over public or private water bottoms,” and that “[n]o person may restrict or prohibit ... the public navigation of running waters which are navigable by a motorboat... .”

But hope for this “sportsman’s paradise” was DOA in the full House, where the politics of power and greed killed HB 391, 59 to 37.

At least Pearson’s bill helped bring the issue to public attention, and that attention is likely to increase as the level of conflict builds between anglers trying to find waters in which they can legally fish and some landowners, who can have anglers cited for trespassing. Let’s hope the day comes when the state can once again be a Sportsman’s Paradise.

In the meantime, Louisiana, you need a new motto for those license plates.

Doug Olander is editor-in-chief of Sport Fishing magazine.

Sport Fishing welcomes opportunities to share a variety of perspectives from prominent or influential participants in issues related to recreational fishing and fisheries.