Secretary Charlie Melancon (r) discusses fishery issues with Gulf Seafood Institute’s Corky Perret (l) and Florida Fishing Management Council member John Sanchez (back to camera) during the Gulf Council’s meeting in Austin, TX. Photo: Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News
by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Charlie Melancon considers himself a lifelong Blue-Dog Democrat, a coalition- builder who is willing to work with both the right and the left to find common ground. As the new Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), he admits there will be challenges for his department as he joins the rest of state government facing budget cuts as a result of Louisiana’s current budget deficit, but he remains enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead.
Louisiana’s newly elected Governor John Bel Edwards appointed the former Louisiana Congressman and legislator as Secretary in December of last year. When asked how he was appointed he laughed and said, “The governor said you are going to be it.”
Melancon, who served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the Third Congressional District and three terms in the Louisiana House of Representatives, previously worked as a governmental consultant and had just received a real estate license in 2015. A former insurance agent, he didn’t want to get back in the insurance business so he figured he would try his hand at real estate.
Then Edwards, a Democrat, was elected. The governor asked Melancon if he had any interest in working in his administration, and his one word answer was “sure.’’
“Governor Edwards and I sat and chatted one day, a few days later he extended the offer to work as the Secretary of Wildlife and Fisheries,” said Melancon, a Napoleonville native.
Equal Access to Wildlife and Fisheries
The job description for the new secretary includes managing, conserving and promoting wise utilization of Louisiana’s renewable fish and wildlife resources, as well as their supporting habitats, through replenishment, protection, enhancement, research, development and education for the social and economic benefit of current and future generations.
“The Governor’s task to me is to provide equal access to wildlife and fisheries to all citizens, regardless of their socio-economic status,” said Melancon, the father of two and grandfather of four. “These natural resources belong to all the citizens of our state, and we want to make them as accessible as possible.”
Upon his appointment, Melancon immediately put a new leadership team in place. He appointed Patrick Banks as the new Assistant Secretary of Fisheries, a position formerly held by Randy Pausina. Banks previously served with the agency in the Fisheries Division. Randy Myers was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Wildlife.
In the past, the Wildlife Division and the Fisheries Divisions were handled separately. Under the new Secretary it will be a more integrated approach.
“My two assistant secretaries are in adjoining offices and they share an admin,” said Melancon, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate. “Both have experience in both wildlife and fisheries issues and, as longtime friends, have a great working relationship. This is going to be a no politics zone. It is all about the science and what is good for the continued sustainability of the resource. Our mission is to preserve, protect and manage. I am not going to be a micromanager.”
Under Melancon, the son of a Louisiana sugar mill operator, LDWF has undertaken numerous programs dedicated to providing enhanced services and better utilization of the Department’s fiscal resources.
The new Secretary says his department will run “lean and mean.” Every State agency is in the same deficit position, according to Melancon. “In these days and times it is inherent upon me to make sure we stick to a very tight budget,” said Melancon while attending his first Gulf of Mexico Fisheries Management Council meeting in Austin, TX.
Melancon is dedicated to streamlining department operations. LDWF is in the process of revamping the website to make it more user-friendly and also developing mobile apps for permitting and licensing. “I believe our department is, if not the best in the country, one of the top five. My goal is to leave the agency even better than where it is right now,” said Melancon.
“In Bourg, south of Houma, we will be doing a pilot-licensing program during shrimp season this May so the shrimpers don’t have to come to Baton Rouge for their license,” he said. “This program has not been attempted since Katrina, more than 10 years ago. Once we get the kinks worked out, we will expand to the St. Bernard/Plaquemines area and then to Lake Charles. We will establish offices that will have the ability to sell commercial permits, licenses and accept boat registration payments. We want to get these services to locations where people operate on a daily basis.”
The Secretary acknowledges these are not cost savings but instead offered as a convenience for the fishermen.
“We have people in Grand Isle, Lake Charles, Plaquemines that have to drive three to four hours to come to Baton Rouge for a license, and if they don’t have the right paperwork they have to drive all the way home and drive back again,” Melancon explained. “We hope to eliminate a lot of wasted driving time.”
He said his office is also in talks with the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles and the Louisiana Department of Revenue to handle the registration and collection of all fees and taxes on boat trailers so all the paperwork can be done in one place.
“There has only been one fee increase since the year 2000,” said Melancon, the former President and General Manager of the American Sugar Cane League. “Sixteen years later, it is time to review all current fee structures and prepare to take any proposed increases to the legislature next year. We will closely review each fee and its income stream then look at what the actual costs for each program are. You can’t do more with less; fees must be revised to meet program expenditures.”
Melancon has already started de-centralizing the department outside of Baton Rouge. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meetings are taking place around the state. In March the meeting was held in Alexandria, and next month it is scheduled for Lake Charles.
“It is interesting that in meetings held in Baton Rouge, all that is talked about is ducks and deer,” he said. “But in Alexandria it was about feral hogs, and I expect it will be all about coastal issues in Lake Charles. I think we are going to find different people having different conversations about different issues as we move around the state.”
The new Secretary knows that expectations for his department are high and feels his staff can do their jobs because they love what they do. He also realizes that the Sportsman’s Paradise continues to remain vulnerable to disasters, both natural and man-made.
In Congress, Melancon served on the Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources, Agriculture, Science and Budget committees. He was instrumental in coordinating private and intergovernmental responses for disaster recovery, and rebuilding in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as well as the BP oil spill.
He says that his Department, in coordination with other state and federal agencies, will be prepared for any future disaster. His first responders, including enforcement agents and other LDWF staff, are the best in the country. “This ain’t our first rodeo, and we will make sure we remain vigilant,” he said.
Melancon realizes the fishermen he represents are facing a multitude of problems. He sees the frustration within the shrimping community because imports have impacted prices and increased competition for an important Gulf seafood industry.
“There is no question that wild caught Gulf shrimp are better than what is coming in from overseas, but we have to address how to ensure Gulf shrimp are perceived to be a premium product,” he said. “Retail marketers sell foreign shrimp not realizing some of the harmful additives they may contain. Their quality hurts our domestic industry. I want to be as supportive as I can to our state and Gulf shrimpers. It is important that we work to ensure our hard working shrimpers are paid a fair price for their product. I will be listening to industry experts to ensure this important way of Gulf life not only survives, but thrives.”
Melancon, who lives with his wife Peachy in Baton Rouge, says that his department will become more involved with the scientific community, especially when it comes to coastal issues.
“We still do not fully understand what the oil spill has done to the coastal bottoms and the long-term effects it will have on various fishing industries,” Melancon said. “Waters that once produced millions of oysters are now non-productive or barely producing. Is it caused by extreme climate change? Is it the Deepwater Horizon well blow out? Or is it a combination? I’m not a scientist; my department will be working with others in the scientific community for these answers. I look to groups like the Gulf Council, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) and any other stakeholders to help solve these problems.”
“I worked closely with the new Secretary while he was a Member of Congress,” said GSI’s President Harlon Pearce. “ He is known for thinking though the issues with an honest, level-headed approach, and has always been dedicated to helping Louisiana and our Gulf fisheries. It has been a pleasure working with him in the past, and GSI looks forward to working with him in the future.”
Upon completion of the Gulf Council’s first day of work in Austin, Melancon told Gulf Seafood News he was committed to become more involved with the Council.
“I had hoped to be able to come for all four days,” Melancon said of his first Council meeting, “however my schedule would not allow it. This trip will be an important learning experience. I am just figuring out the players, as well as the issues.”
Melancon’s long-term goal for his department is to forge stronger relationships with the other coastal states.
“We need to bring all the Gulf stakeholders together to understand where we are, where we want to be, and what is the best way to do it,’’ Melancon said. “That’s what Blue-Dog Democrats do, or at least that is what this Blue Dog Democrat plans to do.’