DEEP DEFENDERS

LDWF Enforcement Agents Work Cooperatively With NOAA To Uphold Federal Regulations In The Gulf Of Mexico

story by Adam Einck, LDWF Public Information

The federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico are a vast area that requires the cooperation of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ enforcement divisions to patrol and effectively enforce the conservation laws.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement is the primary policing entity in charge of ensuring these conservation laws are being followed for federal waters in the United States.

The NOAA Office of Law Enforcement has 29 Joint Enforcement Agreements (JEA) with law enforcement organizations nationwide through their Cooperate Enforcement Program. These agreements fund Louisiana’s law enforcement’s efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We are basically contracted to assist NOAA with enforcing the federal waters that extend out beyond the state waters of Louisiana,” said Lt. Col. Chad Hebert, Louisiana’s JEA program manager. “It is a force multiplier for them.”

In fiscal year 2016-17 LDWF received $910,867 to use primarily on funding equipment and pay agents to patrol the federal waters.

“We try to split the money pretty evenly between equipment needed such as boats and motors and hours for the agents on patrol,” said Hebert.

The state waters in Louisiana extend out to nine nautical miles for reef fish and three nautical miles for other species. The federal waters extend from the state waters out to 200 miles in the Gulf of Mexico and are known as the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The total federal waters that are adjacently south of Louisiana’s state waters make up over 60,000 square miles.

LDWF has participated in the JEA program through NOAA since the early 2000s. The JEA federally deputizes every LDWF agent and allows them to enforce all commercial and recreational fishing regulation in the EEZ.

LDWF agents enforce four different priorities in the EEZ:

  1. Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA): Reef Fish/Highly Migratory/Coastal Migratory/Shrimp
  2. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)
  3. Endangered Species Act: Turtle Excluder Devices
  4. Lacey Act/International: Reef Fish/Highly Migratory/Coastal Migratory

“We sign a contract with NOAA every year that states we are going to work an agreed upon set of hours in the Gulf on each priority,” said Hebert. “On JEA patrol we will go out into the Gulf of Mexico and whatever we come across we will inspect. We will hop on shrimp boats, long line boats, bandit gear boats fishing for snapper and grouper and do TED inspections. Basically anything that is out there that we can inspect we will.”

Since agents are patrolling so far off the coast extra precautions and larger equipment are needed.

“We supply every JEA patrol with at least three agents per vessel,’’ Hebert said. “That way one or two can board a boat and still have an operator. We have a number of 24 and 32 foot whalers and a few 40 foot vessels. Obviously the bigger the vessel the safer and more comfortable of a patrol so we try to use the larger vessels for JEA patrols.”

During the 2016-17 fiscal year, LDWF agents dedicated 12,719 hours to JEA recreational, commercial and dockside enforcement. LDWF agents issued a total of 129 citations while making over 2,000 contacts while on JEA patrols. Also during the 2016-17 fiscal year, LDWF agents boarded 114 vessels and inspected 270 TEDs. Of the 270 TEDs inspected, 11 citations were issued.

“When we first started the JEA program in the early 2000s we probably issued more citations than what we see now,’’ Hebert said. “With our JEA agreement in place we have made more of a presence on the water and at the docks and our observed compliance rates have since gone up. Over the years some of the division’s bigger cases have been the result of JEA patrols.”

One case that sticks out came from a JEA patrol in April of 2008 when agents found a chartered fishing group in possession of 909 red snapper, which put the customers who paid for the charter 873 red snapper over the legal limit of two snapper per licensed fisherman. Of the 909 red snapper, agents also found that 287 were under the minimum 16-inch size requirement.

Agents issued a total of 106 citations to the 18 customers and the captain and deckhand. The citations included over limit of red snapper, possessing undersized red snapper and taking snapper during a closed season since it did not open until June that year.

The case was tried in federal court and the captain of the vessel received an $80,000 fine and had his charter permit suspended for 210 days. Those who paid for the charter received fines totaling $45,450.

Another case agents made while on JEA patrol involved the possession of 2,073 shark fins and 11 whole sharks in April of 2012. The 2,073 fins represent 518 sharks putting the two men on board the vessel in possession of 529 sharks. The daily commercial limit for sharks is 33 per vessel placing the two men 496 sharks over their daily limit.

The two men pleaded guilty to Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act violations and were ordered to pay a fine totaling $45,000. The men were also placed on two years of probation during which they agreed to not transfer any of their federal shark directed permits. The men also had their Louisiana state shark permits and set line licenses revoked for life.

“These cases highlight the need for having JEA patrols in the EEZ,’’ Hebert said. “We’ve made some good cases over the years. We have always had a presence at the docks so when people return from federal waters and try to land their catch at the docks we are there to check on things. However, now that we have a presence on the actual water in the EEZ, it makes our enforcement efforts more efficient.”

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