Since July 2013, Mississippi has claimed its state waters extend nine miles south into the Gulf of Mexico, but the federal government refuses to recognize the declaration. Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator is trying to change the government’s mind.
The feds have been standing by a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined the offshore boundary for Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama was three miles out. The federal government also has not recognized Louisiana’s 2011 declaration of a nine-mile limit.
On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee, headed by Mississippi Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, wrote the nine-mile limit for all three states in a funding bill for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies.
At stake is the Gulf states’ control of lucrative fishing rights and revenue from oil and gas production in near-offshore waters.
“This would give these states greater influence in regulating Gulf state fisheries. Currently, only Texas and Florida enjoy nine-mile limits, and this provision would ensure parity among all Gulf Coast states,” Cochran said in a written statement.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
“I am all for giving the state of Mississippi authority to oversee more of its own coast and allowing those with firsthand knowledge of the region’s needs, namely Mississippians, to have more influence its future,” Cochran said.
The issue dates back to 1953, when Congress passed the Submerged Lands Act. The act established a coastal boundary for each state at three miles from the shore. The federal government retained control of water bottoms farther out.
The act provided that Congress could vote to extend the boundaries up to 10 miles offshore if a state could prove the existence of a law or constitutional provision that established a boundary beyond three miles before that state joined the Union.
In a 1960 lawsuit brought by the federal government, the five Gulf states argued that each qualified for an exception. The U.S. Supreme Court decided Texas and Florida had produced historical documents supporting a 10-mile boundary but it ruled Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana had not.
After 30 more years of litigation, the government, the Supreme Court and the states in 1992 set a legal definition of where each of the three states’ coastline began — and from there the three-mile limit would be determined. The decree did not extend the three-mile limit.
Louisiana wildlife officials said the state Legislature gave authority to extend waters in 2011, but only after it was recognized by Congress or approved in litigation.
The Mississippi law of 2013 mimics the Louisiana law, but without the reference to Congress.
Cochran said the bill recommends funding for an independent assessment of reef fish stocks in the Gulf of Mexico, which will allow for an organization other than NOAA to conduct this research.
He said NOAA is directed to count fish on artificial reefs and offshore energy infrastructure. The agency would also be required to incorporate this new, more accurate count into its stock assessments, which could potentially increase the allowable catch of red snapper for private anglers.
“These provisions represent a straightforward effort to try to get past some of the contentious policies that have affected fishing in the Gulf,” Cochran said.
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.