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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.

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On a recent morning, locals reported a bizarre, but increasingly common, sight out here on Bayou Cocodrie.

A man with a cellphone yelled at a man emptying crawfish traps, to get off his property. The curse-spiced argument over land rights took place with both men standing in boats.

Waving writs, deeds, and sometimes even shotguns, Mississippi Delta landowners say they're warning off fishermen who traverse flooded, but privately owned, bottomlands that can stretch for miles on either side of a main channel on the Mississippi.

But chugging past "no trespassing" signs nailed high on cypress trunks here in the swampy Atchafalaya Basin, boats of cajun crawfishermen just keep on coming. The fishermen, along with a growing number of sport fishermen, say these landowners can't infringe upon what they see as their traditional and legal right to go anywhere the water can carry them.

"Disputes are getting more and more common, because landowners really want to press their rights, and crawfishermen really think they have a right to be there without having to pay," says Charlie Dugal, a biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge.

Since Louisiana landowners first confronted crawfishermen in 1991, a series of lawsuits has failed to resolve arguments often carried out in rapid-fire French patois. The epicenter of the conflict is here in the cypress-and-tupelo bottomlands of the Atchafalaya Basin, which is flooded about eight months out of the year. The wild and swampy outback is best known for being a 1.4-million-acre crawfish pond that produces nearly all of the 10 million or so pounds of wild crawfish sold in the US each year.

Courts siding with landowners

The courts have sided mostly with landowners, who have been able to show proof of ownership from deeds and government surveys of the bottomlands. In 1859, the US transferred ownership of the area to the state of Louisiana, which, in turn, sold the land to timber speculators in an effort to bolster the economy of the poverty-stricken lower delta. But some judges have also sided with the rights of fishermen to ride the flooded across banks to fresh fishing grounds.

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