Louisiana’s wildlife enforcement agents patrol some very diverse land and water habitat in the sportsman’s paradise. From hills and creek bottoms to river and coastal plains, from freshwater lakes and streams to fresh and brackish water marshes wildlife agents cover it all.
Along the coast, agents patrol the bays and beaches and beyond to the state’s Gulfward boundary extending nine nautical miles seaward from the nearest land.
Thanks to a Joint Enforcement Agreement between LDWF and U. S. National Marine Fisheries, wildlife agents also patrol federal waters extending from Louisiana’s boundary waters to 200 miles seaward into the Gulf.
The federal waters are also known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. The EEZ is managed by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, which establishes regulations for the EEZ that require vigorous enforcement if they are to have any meaningful benefit to marine fisheries.
To meet the need for fisheries enforcement in the Gulf, the JEA was created about 10 years ago. It is essentially a contract between LDWF and USNMF wherein the feds commission state wildlife agents and provide funding. The state uses the funds to train, equip and pay wildlife agents to patrol the EEZ.
The JEA is renewed annually following review by National Marine Fisheries Service. During the review process, expenditures in the budget categories are discussed and adjusted in order to fine tune distribution to the categories of hourly pay, equipment purchases, fuel costs and training.
As you may well imagine, a great deal of training is needed before any agent may embark on a JEA patrol. The size of the boat and array of equipment it must carry in order to complete a voyage covering hundreds of miles offshore requires extensive operator training.
The agent must know how to use advanced navigational equipment. He or she must be able to monitor fuel consumption and maintain adequate amounts for a safe return to port. Advanced skills are needed for maneuvering such a large vessel alongside commercial and recreational fishing boats in rough seas, not to mention safely boarding and returning from inspections on those boats.
Officer safety and recognition of threatening or suspicious behavior are very crucial when an agent does a compliance check anywhere, but even more so in the middle of the Gulf with no one else around for miles. So agents must train up on marine enforcement techniques and threats in order to be prepared for anything.
Perhaps even more daunting is the level of training required for proper fish identification.
Essentially, the numerous species of saltwater fish are divided into three groups. The common coastal species include cobia, flounder, mackerel and the like. Reef fish include grouper, the various snappers, amberjack, seabass and such. The highly migratory or pelagic species include marlin, swordfish, tuna, shark and sailfish.
The agent must be able to accurately identify each and every one. I can tell you from personal experience, it is not easy.
An agent must have the classroom time followed by many hours of experience dragging fish out of the ice hold and studying them before gaining accuracy and confidence in identification. Snapper are particularly difficult since the differences between all the different subspecies can be pretty subtle.
In order to ensure JEA patrol does not detract from state fish and wildlife patrol hours, it is voluntary overtime and paid as such; agents assigned to coastal regions are able to participate in the patrols and earn overtime.
I can well remember the days when we worked lots of overtime without paid compensation, so these are indeed better times. A patrol is scheduled for 12 hours but may exceed that number depending on the distance travelled, sea conditions or violations encountered.
A patrol of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuaries, for example, requires extra time.
The boats and equipment are very impressive. One JEA patrol version is the 32-foot Boston Whaler powered by twin 300-horsepower Mercury Verados. They have a 300-gallon fuel capacity and a range of 250 miles in good sea conditions.
The really big girls are the 42-foot Metal Sharks stationed at Venice, Grand Isle and Intracoastal City. They are powered by four 300-horsepower Verados and carry 600 gallons of fuel. Range for the Sharks is 500 miles.
All boats carry radar, GPS, chart plotters and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) cameras, plus backup GPS and chart plotters. The communications package includes satellite radios, VHF radios and emergency position indicator radio beacons (EPIRBs).
Both recreational and commercial fisheries regulations are enforced under the JEA. Long-line gear commercial fishing boats like the ones in the movie “The Perfect Storm” may not use live bait. In fact they may not even have live bait tanks onboard unless the tanks are drained and inoperable. “Finning” sharks, the practices of killing sharks and taking or possessing the fins is prohibited. These are just two examples of commercial fishing violations addressed in federal waters.
On the recreational side agents enforce limits, size restrictions and close seasons.
JEA patrol agents also respond to distress calls, and search and rescue. They are trained first responders able to provide first aid to the sick or injured, and have assisted the USCG with rescue operations.
Better law enforcement and enhanced protection for marine fisheries resources in the Gulf of Mexico are the byproducts of the JEA, and a positive example of how state and federal partnerships can be a winner all the way around.