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Seafood board oversight shifted to lt. governor

Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne asked the Louisiana seafood promotion board Wednesday to draw up a strategic plan and said he'll seek an audit of its finances as he assumes oversight of its operations.

Lawmakers shifted the new responsibility to Dardenne in the recently ended legislative session, as part of an effort to strengthen supervision of a 14-member board that has received millions in recovery money from the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill.

While Dardenne said he didn't seek the new responsibility or push the legislation, he said the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board will dovetail into his office, which is charged with Louisiana's tourism marketing.

"I think it is a nice fit," he said. "There is no question in my mind that this is a marriage that is going to work, that's going to be very successful for your industry and very successful for the state of Louisiana."

The new law takes effect July 1.

The seafood board had only modest funding before the BP oil spill, with about a $300,000 annual budget tied to a fee from sales of commercial fishing, seafood wholesaler and other state licenses. It also receives grants and contributions from task forces that represent individual fishing industries.

Since it was created in 1984, the board had been largely autonomous, under some oversight from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

But the board's profile was raised when it received $30 million from BP PLC for a seafood marketing campaign, to reassure visitors that Louisiana's seafood was safe after the massive spill that soiled the Gulf and Louisiana's coast.

About $16 million of the funding remains unspent, according to an update Wednesday to the board. The funds are set to expire in November, but the seafood board is asking BP to extend the agreement until 2015, so it has time to spend the rest of the money on marketing.

Under the terms of the new law, the lieutenant governor will appoint the members of the promotion and marketing board, instead of the governor. Dardenne said he had no plans to make replacements.

The lieutenant governor also will be in charge of setting the salary for the executive director of the board and supervising board operations.

Dardenne does intend to make some changes. He said the law requires the board's office to be housed in Baton Rouge, not in New Orleans as it is currently. He said the move will save the board money on rental costs.

He said he'd like the board to devise a strategic plan for its future, and he said he's asking the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office to do a quick review of the books "to know what things look like at the moment we take over."

"There's fear that comes with change, but I think the opportunities will far outweigh the fear," said Ewell Smith, executive director of the board.