Will fishing for bass, bream and sac-a-lait — as generations of local residents and visitors have done for nearly seven decades — cease and desist in the marshy Orange Grove area of Terrebonne Parish?
Answers to that and other questions about gated canals blocking public access to this state’s natural resources are up in the air. There isn’t a gate up there, yet, but there is a cable stretched across the waterway and a sign warning boaters — men and women who purchase resident and non-resident fishing licenses — to keep out of Orange Grove.
One Gonzales resident who has fished the area for bass and redfish is concerned that it’s another example of public access to fishable waters being blocked.
Lucas Ragusa is secretary for the Louisiana Sportsmen’s Coalition (LaSC), a non-profit group dedicated to opening up gated canals under what he called an archaic, “Napoleonic Code.”
“Our hope with Orange Grove,” Ragusa said, “is that it is a catalyst to wake people up that this is happening and happening to a waterway that is frequented by a lot of inshore fishermen. It is having a direct impact on tourism in the state.”
Ragusa, who fishes bass tournaments, emphasized that fishermen don’t want ownership of the property behind the gates — at Orange Grove, the group that applied for a permit to put up the cable is Wylie Corp./Orange Grove Holding LLC/Robichaux, Alfred C. — they just want to fish without fear of having a weapon waved in their faces, being issued tickets or even losing their jobs.
“It’s been an area I’ve fished for a long time. I’ve probably fished in there about 20 times,” he said. “Bayou Black and I have a love-hate relationship. There’s too much gray area for fishermen like me who don’t want to be involved in a dispute that we fished legal or illegal waters.
“We don’t want ownership. We just want to be able to use it.”
Ragusa, 42, attended a Coastal Zone Management & Restoration Advisory meeting on June 2 in Houma, where the Orange Grove cable was a major source for discussion. He said the controversy over the prohibition of entry into public waters is a reason that major bass tournament circuits have stayed away from Louisiana since 2016 — costing the state to lose millions of dollars.
Matt Black of Houma, Terrebonne Parish Coastal Restoration Director and Coastal Zone Manager, said his office approved a local permit for the applicant, one of three required before a gate can be built. He said there’s been plenty of feedback since the cable was stretched across the waterway and a white pole planted in the middle with a sign reading “Orange Grove is Closed to the Public.”
Black said his office approved the permit application because after a public notice about the application was posted in March, there were no public comments, and because the COVID-19 restrictions removed the chances for a public hearing on the issue.
Black emphasized the wetlands permit his office approved is one of three permits that must be obtained by an applicant for a gate to be built. The others are from the state’s Office of Coastal Management and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps’ permit may be the biggest challenge for the applicant. Black said a 15-day public comment period implemented by the Corps started June 1 and will end June 15.
“Anybody can comment,” Black said, pointing out the Corps operates under laws that are much, much broader and encompassing than Terrebonne Parish’s Office of Coastal Restoration & Preservation.
The Corps’ options are to either approve or deny the permit, and, Black said, it weighs weighs factors before making a decision.
Ragusa said LaSC is in the battle for the long haul, the opening salvo of which was House Bill 391, which would have restored rights to access public waterways that was defeated in the state legislature in April 2018.
An email from Black to LaSC said, “The long-term solution to this can only be found in Baton Rouge with the (Louisiana) Legislature. A law should be enacted which prohibits such gates, but carefully balances the needs of the property owners and the public, the fishing community.”
LaSC supports three of six bills dealing with public access on the water introduced in this COVID-19-delayed Louisiana Legislature.
- HB 40, introduced by Rep. Sherman Mack, which requires that agreements between an acquiring agency and a landowner for integrated coastal protection projects ensure public recreational access to waterways in the reclaimed lands.
- HB 627, introduced by Rep. Beryl Alexander, which provides for an affirmative defense to the crime of trespass when certain property is not properly posted.
- HB 650, introduced by Rep. Beryl Alexander, which provides relative to the regulation of gates across waterways in the coastal areas.
A cell phone message and a text message Wednesday afternoon to Aaron Cantrelle, land manager listed on the permit application for the Wylie Corp./Orange Grove Holdings LLC/Robichaux, Albert C., were not returned before publication of this story by Louisiana Sportsman.
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