Oct. 27, 2004 A group of 100 fishermen and women agreed Wednesday night that the only solution to fighting further closure of fishing grounds and other restrictions on their livelihood was solidarity.
"We are a unit to be reckoned with," Jimmy Magner, Frenchtown fisherman, said looking around the packed room at the Frenchtown Community Center."Our whole agenda is to fight as a unit."
The fight is against a plan developed by the Caribbean Fishery Management Council to reduce the amount of fishing in federal waters near the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by as much as 37 percent. The council plans to hold public hearings on Nov. 22 and 23 on St. Croix and St. Thomas, respectively.
The St. Thomas Fishermen's Association called Wednesday night's meeting to establish an agenda for meeting the council head on.
José Alberto Sanchez traveled the forty miles from St. Croix in his 25 foot fishing boat to attend.
"I feel sad," Sanchez said. "It took us too long to do this." [get together as a group].
"The other day I felt like giving up," because he said, "I felt like I was a man alone."
But after seeing all the fisherman Wednesday night, Sanchez was more hopeful. "When one man stands alone it is easy to remove him. When 100 men stand together the government has to listen."
Those in attendance listened attentively as David A. Olsen, environment and fishery consultant, cited evidence that the V.I. waters were not over fished the reason the council gives for implementing the proposed restrictions, that fishermen say would cause extreme economic hardship for themselves and their families.
For one thing, Olsen said, the size of the catch per trap is the same today as it has traditionally been, five pounds. Also, he said, where over fishing exists you have "little bitty" fish. Not so in the V.I. where, Olsen said, yellowtail snapper are found to be several inches longer than they are believed to grow.
"We are getting fish larger than they are supposed to be." Also evidence, he said, that fish are not being caught when they are too small.
Furthermore, Olsen said, the issue of over fishing, even if it were true, would be solved by attrition. Fewer V.I. people are choosing fishing as a career. At it's most recent peak several years ago, Olsen said there were 260 licensed fishermen on St. Thomas. Today there are 175. Sanchez said fishermen on St. Croix number 200.
Olsen called the 700-page management plan "crap." He said, as did the fishermen, that the people who developed the report had never been to the Virgin Islands.
"The fishermen know the fishing better than anyone." Olsen said. In a best-case scenario, he said, the fishermen would develop a "cooperative relationship" with the council offering data and input for the management plan. Then, Olsen said, "You could have a really good plan."
Olsen has been to the Virgin Islands. He was the first director of Planning and Natural Resource's Fish and Wildlife Division. He recently returned to the V.I. where he is building a home.
Despite his extensive fishery management credentials, Olsen characterized his work with the fishermen as a "hobby."
"I like these guys," he said after the meeting. "They helped me out many times."
And now he is helping them.
"The fishermen should have a proposal," for the council he told them.
And they should also have a show of force, Magner said scanning the crowd. "This is what I want to see on Nov. 23."
Sanchez suggested the fishermen bring their boats and park them in front of Government House if necessary. If the closure problem isn't solved, he said, they'd be using them instead to bring in illegal immigrants.
Sanchez wants to see more than fishermen and boats at the November meetings, however. He wants senators there, too. "We need to let our senators know they work for us."
Several incumbents and hopefuls alike were in attendance at the hour-and-a-half-long meeting.
Pointing out that fishing is a dangerous job, Sanchez said, "When we go out there every day, we don't know if we are going to come home."
Outspoken North Side fisherman David Berry said, "We feed the country."
Solidarity between the various groups has not been the norm.
"Before this everybody was off doing their own thing," Magner said.
And while they were other closures, including the establishment of national monuments on St. Croix and St. John, further reduced the options for the commercial fishermen.
If the applause from Frenchtown, North Side, St. John and St. Croix fishermen at the call for unity was any indication, a new day may be dawning over the Virgin Islands fishing grounds.
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