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In bayou, whose water is it?

A legal battle brews over whether fishermen are trespassing when they fish in the flooded bottomlands.

(Page 2 of 2)

After watching crawfishing operations grow larger and more sophisticated, landowners in 1989 banded together to promote better management and take a share of the profits. An attempt in 1991 to lease the bottomlands to crawfishermen failed. Since then, powerful county sheriffs and land-use lawyers have supported the landowners.

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"Even if you do have the right to use the state-owned water bottom for commerce, it doesn't include the right to come miles onto my property when it's flooded, ... harvest thousands of dollars of crawfish each year, and leave me the empty bait boxes," says Rudy Sparks, vice president of lands and timber at Williams Inc., in Patterson, La., the major landowner in the area.

But it's a case outside the Atchafalaya, in the Mississippi drainage area of East Carroll Parish, that is now the focus, drawing recreational fishermen into the crawfish alliance. It began when two bass fishermen were arrested in 2001 for trespassing on private property as they were casting lures in 20 feet of water. Last year, presiding US District Court Judge Robert James ruled that boaters can breach flooded private banks to travel, but not to fish.

What many Americans – and some judges – don't understand, is the peculiar hydrology of many of the country's most fecund backwaters, says Paul Hurd, a lawyer in Monroe, La., who will make the fishermen's case to the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 3.

Not only are such bottomlands the best fishing grounds, he argues, but he plans to cite both state and federal laws dating back to America's founding that support a citizen's right to traverse "navigable waters," however they may occur, and use them for subsistence and commerce.

"Every once in a while we have to reaffirm ... common rights for citizens," says Mr. Hurd.

The issue is complicated by the intersection of US law and historically marginalized Acadian, or Cajun, culture, says Barry Jean Ancelet, a folklorist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. In these parts, Acadian ideals of communal property often clash with the capitalistic – and divisive – potential of delta resources. "This is Cajuns with money fighting Cajuns without a whole lot of money," says Mr. Ancelet.

Fishermen: Need to earn a living

Yet many people believe this standoff is bigger than a few Cajuns getting hot under their flannel collars, says Mike Bienvenu, president of Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association-West.

He portrays the scattered communities of fishermen – numbering 2,000 – who earn their living in these tupelo bottoms as a small platoon of Davids challenging the corporate Goliaths who want the timber, seafood, and energy resources of the Atchafalaya for themselves.

Crawfisherman Jody Meche, an outspoken town councilor in the basin town of Henderson, La., knows the stakes. While fishing several years ago, he claims that he and his son were fired upon by a landowner. Mr. Meche filed a lawsuit against the man, which is expected to go to court later this year.

As Meche floats his flat-bottomed boat past the "no trespassing" signs, he points to where fishermen have hung wooden bait boxes on stumps in protest. The contested water spreads out in all directions, the silence punctuated by screeching ospreys and loudly burping bullfrogs.

"[Landowners] don't have clear title to this area, only a claim," he says. "This water connects to the waters of the world."