In an interview Thursday from the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in Clearwater Beach, Fla., Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries secretary Charlie Melancon clarified his position on a bill in Congress that would transfer management of Gulf red snapper to the five Gulf states.

Melancon said when an amendment was added to H.R. 3094 in Washington, D.C. that removed any federal funding to assist the Gulf states with regional management, his responsibility was for the department’s bottom line.

“Management was not ever the issue. The people that wrote articles and quoted me never spoke to me. The fact that there was one headline that said I was against regional or state management is absolutely false. The issue is the funding,” he said. “Money is the deal breaker. As my daddy and other people I’ve known say, ‘Money ain’t everything, but whoever’s in second place is way behind… 

“To say that I’m against the management locally, or statewide, or regionally is totally false. I am opposed to having a bill passed that comes in and causes people in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the people of the state of Louisiana heartburn over however many millions that we’re going to have to fork up. And it’s going to be in the millions — I just don’t know if it’s in the low millions or the high millions. So then are we going to be able to do a Cadillac job or a Yugo? My best bet is if we have to fund it on what I think we have available, it’s going to be a Yugo — if not a horse and carriage. And that’s not good science.”

Earlier this week, Melancon, who was appointed by then Gov.-Elect John Bel Edwards in December to lead the LDWF, released an undated, unsigned statement concerning H.R. 3094 — a bill from Rep. Garret Graves (R - Baton Rouge) that would remove the Gulf red snapper fishery management from the Gulf Council and give it to each of the Gulf states’ fisheries managers. 

The Coastal Conservation Association-Louisiana and the prior LDWF administration had worked together for years in a bid to be able to manage the state’s snapper fishery — a move that would have hopefully resulted in higher limits and longer seasons for recreational anglers.

“Without federal funding, Louisiana could potentially lack the proper resources to manage the red snapper fishery,” the statement read. “H.R. 3094 would not be a viable option for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. It would be fiscally irresponsible for the Department to support any mandate that would result in an unknown amount of fiscal burden placed on the State of Louisiana for the management of a single species of fish. 

“As a Department, we are charged with managing our fisheries resources for optimum yield; the same applies to our fiscal resources.”

On Thursday, Melancon said he hadn’t been provided firm numbers on what administering the program might cost the state each year if Graves’ bill ultimately passes.

“The first thing on the budget numbers is we’re trying to get our arms around it,” he said. “There’s so many buckets of money that come into the department —through Commerce, Wildlife and Fisheries, the Gulf Council and the Gulf Commission — and I’ve asked several other of the state directors what their number was, and they all looked at me like, ‘Well, duh? I’m not sure.’ 

“So when I do get a number, I may well be the first director of an agency that might know that number, or pretty close to it. We are preliminarily thinking that the number may be in the $10 million-plus range, but we can’t confirm it as of yet.”

Melancon said the saltwater license fee increase has resulted in about $3.3 million since its inception, with about $2.8 million of that going to salaries for the staff hired to generate data for the LA Creel Survey Program, which provides ‘real-time’ harvest numbers in Louisiana. With the state’s current economic outlook — and a deficit looming at the State Capitol projected in the hundreds of millions of dollars— Melancon said being cautious is the prudent thing to do.

“The price of oil is down to about $40, where in the Jindal administration it was running about $100 a barrel. The fees and the permits are static — they have not increased at all in the last number of years, probably for as far back as about 10 years. So I’m looking at declining revenues, and then a mandate that comes — whether it’s 1 million or 10 million or 20 million or whatever that number is — I have to be responsible to the people of the state of Louisiana,” he said. “Until I know what that number is, and can confer and determine, I have to stick by my decision because with the current climate at the Legislature… I think they’re a couple of hundred million shy of filling up that budget deficit. 

“And if that’s the case, the next time they come in, they’re going to be looking at the ‘Stat.-Ded.’ agencies to start taking money out of, because they obviously will not pass anything that resembles a fee or a tax.”

The department is funded through statutorily dedicated money, Melancon explained.

“We collect oil revenues, permits, fees, violation monies, and we have certain monies that come in and that’s it,” he said. “But technically, the Legislature wasn’t supposed to get to any of that, but they took out $100 million during the Jindal administration.”

He said the department is currently in a “reorganization position.”

“I’ve got more chiefs than I’ve got indians, and I have more permanent employees than I can maintain without going down to the Legislature and asking for money to continue operations,” he said. “I am looking at the possibility that I will run out of money in 2 ½  to 3 years if I don’t do something right now… 

“Do I spend that money on one fish, or do I hope that we’ll get a piece of legislation that gets us where we need to go with the funding?”

Melancon’s statement on Graves’ bill comes only a couple of months after the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission unanimously passed a resolution in April supporting the Gulf States Red Snapper Management Authority and the transferring of the fishery to the five Gulf states.

“Several months back, a resolution was passed covertly that showed up about two days out before the meeting that said the department will follow the GSRSMA and that’s it. As a manager, as a person who’s been in business as a person who’s been in government for years, I want every option I can get to try to manage something,” Melancon said. “So when somebody ties my hands and says, ‘You will do nothing else and follow this avenue and that’s it,’ they’re hurting the people of the state of Louisiana. 

“Anyway, that was passed but there was a caveat in that resolution that said unless it became an ‘unviable option.’ Well elimination of funding to a state is unviable to me, regardless of what the amount ends up being.”

Melancon said other state directors he spoke with at the Council meeting in Florida were also concerned about the lack of federal funding.

"I won’t give you their individual response, but they’re very hesitant and cautious right now," he said. "I don’t think any state consciously can support something that gives them a forced mandate without any funding. I’d be interested to see if it passes how happy any of those states’ governors are going to be."

If the federal government steps up to the plate and eventually provides funding for the regional management program, Melancon said he would be in full support.

“If that language gets corrected, yes, we’re back in,” he said. 

And if the bill successfully moves through Congress without providing federal funding to the states, Melancon said his department would do all they could to make the program work.

“If it becomes law of the land without money, we’re going to do  the best we can because it will be the law,” Melancon said. “But at the same time, as a precautionary measure, you don’t throw yourself off the bridge because the Pied Piper is whistling in front of you. 

“My momma used to say, ‘The Lord gave you a brain — think with it and use it.’ So what I’m doing is taking the precautions.”