The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is running out of money. The department faces an expected $16 million shortfall this year and a $34 million deficit next year, said Rep. Tony Bacala (R-Prairieville) while introducing a bill that would increase hunting and fishing licenses at a Louisiana House committee hearing Wednesday.
The department has a deficit is in large part because of a loss in revenue from oil and gas royalties driven by a decline in prices and production. Despite cost- cutting measures, the department has drawn down its account of past mineral revenues from leases on its properties. Around 2013, the department had $73.2 million in mineral revenues in its coffers, but that amount has dwindled to $13 million.
“For years they haven’t generated enough funds annually to support their operation, but they’ve had a savings account that they just drew down from,” Rep. Bacala said. “This year they have a little bit left in that oil and gas fund. But it’s going to run out this year.”
In 2018, the department approached the Legislature with a proposal to increase fees, but that legislation did not pass. Since then the department has cut down its staff by about 160 positions, said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet. “We only have 237 wildlife agents for the whole state of Louisiana. Can you imagine that?” he asked. “You know how many state policemen are on the road? In the thousands.”
House Bill 691 faced opposition Wednesday from commercial fishers who said that their businesses have suffered from the pandemic and environmental degradation. “We’re not in a place today where we can accept these fee hikes,” said Jody Meche, president of the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West. “It’s not the time for it.”
Recreational fishing groups supported the bill.
The bill advanced out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee without opposition Wednesday. But the chair of the committee, Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan (R-Lafayette), asked the department to work with commercial fishers on their concerns as the bill moves forward.
Without increased fees, the department will have to compete for money from the state general fund against other needs of the state, hope mineral prices go up or continue to make cutbacks, Rep. Bacala said. To prove his willingness to work with commercial fishers, he publicly announced his cell phone number at the hearing. “I just got my first phone call,” Bacala said before the meeting was adjourned.