Why a state agency paid $291K for a boat ‘fishermen dream of’

This is not Bill Walker’s Department of Marine Resources.

The DMR just bought a 39-foot, offshore boat, but it won’t be used for the legislative fishing trips, fishing tournaments and birthday outings that Bill Walker sanctioned under his regime, Executive Director Jamie Miller told the Sun Herald.

The new boat, a Contender-brand open fisherman, is outfitted with three 350-horsepower outboard motors, radar and all the other electronic gadgets fishermen covet. The price for this boat and accoutrements: $291,420.

The manufacturer’s website says, “It is the boat true, die-hard fishermen dream of. The boat that has but one reason to exist: to help you catch the kind of fish that win tournaments – plain and simple.”

DMR intends to use the boat for collecting finfish samples offshore, most notably red snapper, Miller said when the Sun Herald interviewed him this week at the DMR’s reef staging site on the Industrial Seaway, where the boat is stored. Miller said the DMR wants hard data to prove what most offshore fishermen will already tell you: Red snapper are more plentiful than the federal government’s stingy fishing limits indicate.

(Oh, and one other thing. Miller said the boat “absolutely” will be used in undercover operations to nab fishermen with illegal catches. The Contender will be marked as a DMR boat, but its 70-mph top speed means enforcers will be on top of those fishing illegally before they can dispose of their catches.)

Snapper evidence

The Contender is outfitted with three electronic reels to pull in fish from a sampling area that covers more than 2,000 square miles.

The fish will be delivered to the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory for examination and collection of the first real data the state will have in the northern Gulf to determine the health, size and other characteristics of the red snapper population. Miller believes the data collected will open the door for longer red snapper seasons, an economic boon for the Coast. The federal snapper season this year lasted nine short days in June.

Data would also help the state manage and regulate fishing in state waters, which include the Mississippi Sound and run 9 nautical miles into the Gulf. The state’s snapper season this year runs from Memorial Day to 11:59 p.m. Monday, Labor Day.

“We believe that the data we are going to be able to provide is going to be extremely helpful in extending the red snapper season. It’s going to help inform our state season, and we think it’s important to have that information. But the information doesn’t exist in Back Bay. It doesn’t exist at Cat Island. It exists out in 200-, 300-, 500-foot water.”

‘Fishing machine’

Miller, who took the helm of DMR in 2013, said he realized taxpayers might question the boat’s purchase after what happened under former director Bill Walker, who is in prison over graft at the agency.

Under Walker, the DMR leased two offshore boats — cabin cruisers outfitted for overnight trips — from a foundation Walker controlled. Although it didn’t own the boats, the DMR spent at least $1.4 million outfitting and maintaining them.

According to testimony in court cases stemming from agency corruption, the boats were used 95 percent of the time for recreational trips — not work. The state recovered $126,114 when the boats were sold through sealed bids after equipment had been removed, according to the State Auditor’s Office.

“There was a lot of cleanup we had to do, obviously, when I got to the agency, but these are not leisure craft with bathrooms and beds and TVs,” Miller said.

“This (Contender) is a sampling offshore fishing machine and that’s exactly what it’s going to be used for and nothing more.”

The DMR solicited bids for the offshore boat, listing specifications it needed to meet for the sampling program. Contender Boats of Homestead, Fla., was the low bidder. Miller said the agency got a good price on the boat.

“If you want to go sample reef fish, you have to do it where they are and you have to be able to do it in one day,” he said. “We have to go to multiple sites in one day.

“So when we put out the advertisement for a vessel with certain capabilities, it included fuel capacity for 200 miles, able to deal with 6- to 8-foot seas, equipment that included radar and other bottom-reading equipment where we can better understand where we are and what we’re seeing.”

Frustrated fishermen

The DMR and research lab are teaming up on the sampling project under a two-year, $4.5 million federal grant that covers salaries, equipment, supplies and other expenses for data collection. The grant, an early sliver of the funding Mississippi expects from BP after the 2010 oil catastrophe, also covers gas and maintenance for the Contender, which will drink an average of 200 gallons of fuel per trip.

The DMR is paying for the boat through a state loan, Miller said. Money the state collects from Tidelands leases will cover the boat’s equipment.

A standardized sampling program should not only help make the case that federal red snapper seasons can be extended, but also help shape the state’s finfish-management and conservation programs.

The DMR’s grant application says the state manages 16,000 acres of offshore reefs north and south of the barrier islands, and oil and gas platforms that serve as fish habitats in the Gulf of Mexico. The DMR will catch snapper from these areas for the sampling program.

Miller believes the DMR and GCRL should have reliable data within the next three to five years for the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, established by Congress to regulate fisheries in federal waters of the Gulf. It is the council that shrank red snapper season in federal waters, much to the chagrin of fishermen who declared at a 2014 snapper summit that something has to give.

Miller said: “We think — just like the other Gulf states believe and they’re doing similar projects — that if we can close that data gap through a sampling regime that has protocols and can be tested with real science that we’re going to be able to change what the (red snapper) season looks like and we’ll be able to change what the quota is year to year.”

Staff writer John Fitzhugh contributed to this report.

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99