Protecting the Right to Fish in the Atchafalaya Basin
Jody Meche has fished and hunted his entire life in the Atchafalaya Basin. Like his father, he has made his living off of the Atchafalaya Basin for the last 30 years. He was born in Breaux Bridge and lives in Henderson, just steps from the waters that have supported the Meche family for generations
So there was nothing out of the ordinary when Jody decided to take his sons frogging one night in April in 2004. However, what happened soon after their boat reached Rycade Lake near Whiskey Bay channel was extraordinary, even life threatening.
It was about 8 o’clock at night, the perfect time for frogging. “You frog with a light at night,’ Jody explained. “You shine a light in the frog’s eye then you maneuver your boat to the frog and you grab him with your hand. The water was pretty high and I got into Rycade Lake with my biggest skiff, my ’88 Evinrude. I had gone earlier with my nephew during the day and I saw it looked good for froggin.”
Jody and his sons had just started frogging when he heard a gunshot. Then, he saw a bullet hit very close to his boat. “I would say inside of 10, 15 yards of my boat. I told my boys to get down in the bottom of the boat,” he recalled.
The shooter was a nearby property owner who accused Jody and his sons of trespassing on the lake. As one might imagine, some choice words were exchanged that we don’t need to repeat here.
“He shot at me on the lake, trying to run me off, thinking that it was private property,” he said, “But it’s a lake I’ve been fishing all my life.”
The two men went their separate ways that night.
Soon afterwards, Jody filed a report with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff. The property owner filed for a Temporary Restraining Order and injunction against Jody.
He called Attorney Joseph “Buzzy” Joy for help. Buzzy Joy is known in South Louisiana for successfully representing fishermen in the Atchafalaya Basin. Joy is THE legal counsel fishermen need in this type of property disputes.
“As a navigable water bottom, the Atchafalaya Basin is owned by the state and not by private property owners,” Attorney Joseph “Buzzy” Joy insisted. “It is a resource that should be shared and protected by all who use it. When a private company’s actions damage the basin, or when alleged private landowners refuse to let commercial fishermen use the basin, Joseph Joy and Associates have the expertise to handle the lawsuit.”
Attorney Joseph Joy successfully defeated the restraining order and injunction in state district court, allowing Jody access once again to the lake. But that was just round one.
Then it was on to federal court to keep this kind of dispute from ever happening again.
According to Attorney Joseph Joy, only a federal district court could rule, once and for all, that Lake Rycade was a navigable waterway. Jody and every other fishermen had a right to access the area.
At issue was whether Lake Rycade was a navigable waterway.
The United States Supreme Court in The Daniel Ball, set forth the definition of navigable waters for purposes of admiralty jurisdiction:
Rivers must be regarded as public navigable when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for Commerce, over which trade and travel are or maybe conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water. And they constitute navigable waters of the United States within the meaning of the acts of Congress, in contradistinction from the navigable waters of the states, when they form in their ordinary condition by themselves, or by uniting with other waters, a continued highway over which Commerce is or may be carried on with other states of foreign countries in the customary modes in which such Commerce is conducted by water. The Daniel Ball, 77 us 557, 563 (1870).
So it was up to the federal court in Lafayette to analyze the number of days when the waters of Lake Rycade are navigable and whether they coincide with crawfish season, which is the activity of commercial nature that is the most likely to be used for that area and the time. When the area is most likely to be used as a highway of Commerce to move across the Atchafalaya basin.
Louisiana law provides for Ownership of inland non-navigable water bottoms in RS 9:1115.2:
- Inland non-navigable water bodies are those which are not navigable in fact and are not sea, arms of the sea, or seashore.
- Inland non-navigable water beds or bottoms are private things and may be owned by private persons or by the state and its political subdivisions in their capacity as private persons
Acts 1992, No. 998, §1.
A federal judge heard the case for 8 days in federal court. “We put on witnesses who testified to the fact that the lake was navigable and that commerce was taking place in the lake. My brother fished on the lake for years past. My dad fished commercially, made his living on the lake. And I also did. I was crawfishing on that lake,” he said.
Victory for the plaintiffs. “We won. We proved it was a navigable lake.” Jody proudly recalled. “And it’s all because oI had Buzzy Joy as my attorney,” he said. “Buzzy investigated the case and secured a lot of witnesses to build our case. He saved our way of life. Without Buzzy Joy, I wouldn’t have a right to fish in the Atchafalaya Basin.”
At Joseph Joy and Associates, our attorneys have helped defend the rights of fishermen and outdoor sportsmen. Give us a call if your right to fish in the basin or navigable waterway is threatened: 337-232-8123 or visit us at 900 S. College Rd., Ste. 204, Lafayette, LA.