Oct. 28, 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 group met to speak out against proposed new federal restrictions on where they can fish and what types of sea-life they can catch.
The restrictions would prohibit fishing of the Nassau and goliath grouper and the queen conch which federal experts say have been overharvested in parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for 15 to 30 years so the animals can regenerate their populations, according to Caribbean Fishery Management Council documents.
At least 13 other types of sea-life have been overharvested around the territories, according to a summery of the proposed bans.
But at the Wednesday night meeting the fisherman presented contrary evidence, saying if there is overfishing, it is in Puerto Rico, not around St. Thomas.
David A. Olsen, the former director of the Virgin Islands Fish and Wildlife Department said the federal studies were flawed and "sloppy mistakes are being made."
Local fishermen know the numbers and size of fish being caught better than any federal studies, Olsen repeated several times.
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.
If adopted into the Sustainable Fisheries Act by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the new regulations could close as much as half of the waters St. Thomas fishermen work in.
The proposed restrictions are far from finalized, however, and other plans range from no protection for the species to 105-year bans.
"Nothing has been set in stone yet," Mike Barnette, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in St. Petersburg, Fla., said. "We're looking for feedback. Once we get a bunch of public comment we can revise the document."
Other ideas include seasonal bans on fishing and geographical bans to protect the fish during spawning.
Fishermen, however, contend there are already enough restrictions on fishing, pointing to the 1,900-acre national monument around Buck Island north of St. Croix, where no fishing is allowed.
Researchers from the University of the Virgin Islands studied populations of Nassau grouper, a fish once common to the area that is now a candidate for the endangered species list, during their March spawning season and said the fish were so overharvested they had lost memory of their native spawning grounds.
Rick Nemeth, director of the university's Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, wrote the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council several times recommending the spawning areas be closed during the spring season when the grouper lay their eggs. Otherwise, he said, the fish will not be able to repopulate.
A ban on specific fish may not be effective, Nemeth said, because fishermen will simply fillet their catch at sea, making the type of fish difficult to identify.
In March, NOAA researchers conducted a two-week study of fish populations around St. John and Buck Island, and found fish size and population to be dangerously low.
The NOAA team saw just one Nassau grouper, which scientists say was nearly fished out of existence in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming federally protected.
Overfishing and destruction of fish habitat such as coral reefs were to blame for the lack of size and population, the researchers said.
Merlee Bryan, 35, has run a small commercial fishing business with her husband in St. Thomas for 12 years. She said if there is a reduction in fish population, it might have to do with land runoff killing fish habitats, not overfishing. She also said it was unfair to punish small fishing operations like hers and not further regulate large fish trawlers that pass through the Caribbean.
"This is all [the fishermen] know. This is all they've done, all they'll ever do, and there's nothing in place to help them transition," Bryan said.
Several petitions circulated called for an end to fishing restrictions and support for the industry.
José Alberto Sanchez traveled the 40 miles from St. Croix in his 25-foot fishing boat to attend.
"The other day I felt like giving up," he said, because "I felt like I was a man alone."
But after seeing all the fishermen 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."
The meeting was attended by at least five Senators and candidates, as well as staff members for Delegate Donna M. Christensen. Christensen herself came in later. The lawmakers were mostly there to listen, however, and grumbles around the outskirts of the meeting called for action.
"I don't know what to do," fisherman Steven "Boogie" Richardson, 28, said. "We have all kinds of paper to sign, but what to do? What's the next step?"
Those in attendance Wednesday listened attentively as Olsen, environment and fishery consultant, cited evidence that V.I. waters are not overfished
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 overfishing 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.
Furthermore, Olsen said, the issue of overfishing, even if it were true, would be solved by attrition. Fewer V.I. people are choosing fishing as a career. At its 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.
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."
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 fishing closure problem isn't solved, he said, they'd be using them instead to bring in illegal immigrants.
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