When one of the world’s biggest bass fishing tournament organizers throws in the towel on a favorite destination, it’s bad. When it’s a quirk of the state law that means anglers risk arrest for even being in the area, it’s worse.
Last year, B.A.S.S. announced it would no longer schedule tournaments in Louisiana – previously a favorite destination – because of an odd state law allowing homeowners and landowners to claim large areas of open water as their own private property. This might not be quite so bad, except that many times, what is being claimed as private is, in actuality, a public waterway that is open to boating and fishing.
But, says the Times of Houma-Thibodaux, that hasn’t stopped homeowners from brandishing guns and threatening anglers, effectively running them out of public waterways. And that has hurt the fishing tournament industry.
Faced with an untenable situation, Louisiana State Rep. Kevin Pearson (R) of Slidell, has introduced HB 391, which would restrict the ability of private landowners to prohibit boater access to navigable waters flowing over or through their lands. It is currently being considered by the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure.
B.A.S.S., to nobody’s great surprise, is among the organizations supporting the bill, and it is hopeful that a good portion of its 500,000 members will be among those pressuring legislators to move the bill into law. Other supporters are the Sierra Club’s Delta Chapter and the Louisiana Sportsman’s Coalition, an organization of anglers who want to see the law changed and open up public use of Louisiana tidewaters.
According to the Times article, the bill needs to address some specific – and in places, even archaic – language:
The generally settled law of the United States is that the bottoms of waterways subject to the ebb and flow of tides – whether navigable or not – are considered the property of the states where they are located and cannot be claimed in private deeds as private property.
But in Louisiana the navigable waterway definition is based on the land maps from the time of first statehood, and possibly revised in 1840. Some property is tidal, and if it is not covered by the water it is not.
Landowners say they have good reason to maintain their property rights and enforce them. If they are perceived as permitting use of their lands by anyone who asks or just shows up, there are potentials for civil liability if someone is injured or killed.
Pearson’s bill addresses this by shielding owners from liability. How effective that shielding may be will likely be a topic at committee hearings.
Compounding the situation is a statute that allows arrests or citations for trespassing even if the so-called private waters are unmarked by buoys or signs.
Numerous Bassmaster tournaments have been held in coastal fisheries of Louisiana, including four Bassmaster Classic world championships in the Louisiana Delta out of New Orleans between 1999 and 2011. The loss of such high-profile and high-dollar events is a bitter pill for state lawmakers and tourism promoters to swallow.
This week, in a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament to be held April 6-9 on the Sabine River out of Orange, Texas, Louisiana waters have been declared off-limits to anglers, said Trip Weldon, B.A.S.S. tournament director, who added that anglers would have to stay on the Texas side of the event for their catches to be declared eligible for the contest. (Ultimately, unsafe weather conditions caused the postponement of the tournament until weather conditions improved, but this had nothing to do with the legislation.)
He noted that in previous Elite tournaments on the Sabine, some anglers practiced in waters they thought were public, only to find them closed when competition began. In addition, anglers in the Bassmaster Central Open on the Sabine River last June were informed on the eve of competition they could not enter a large section of tidewaters where many had planned to fish.
B.A.S.S. Conservation Director Gene Gilliland said B.A.S.S is urging its members in Louisiana — as well as those who travel from out of state to fish in the “Sportsman’s Paradise” — to support passage of the HB 391. “This bill is a start in the right direction,” he said.
“For 50 years, B.A.S.S. has fought for anglers’ rights to access public waters,” added Gilliland. “Louisiana is one of the most important battlegrounds in the nation, especially along the Gulf Coast, where canals, ponds and bays that have been fished for many years are now being gated by those who own the land around them.”
Pearson’s bill states, “The running waters of the state and the wild aquatic life inhabiting those waters are and remain the property of the state and, as such, title and ownership remain unchanged whether the running waters flow over public or private water bottoms.” It also would prohibit anyone from restricting or prohibiting the “public navigation of running waters which are navigable by a motorboat.”
In addition, it would protect private property along the canals and other channels from damage by boaters.