Home News Local news Not for Profit: St. Thomas Fishermen's Association

Not for Profit: St. Thomas Fishermen's Association

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Oct. 29, 2006 — Jimmy Magner stands beneath the still-uncompleted Gustave Quetel Fish House on the bayside in Frenchtown and shakes his head: "If Gus could see this now, he'd be rolling in his grave."
When Magner learned about fishing with his grandfather 45 years ago at age 10, little did he know he would find himself defending that same trade today.
Magner is wiry, vigorous and noisy. These days he puts all of his considerable voice into defending fishermen's rights and local fisheries from incursions by the local and federal government. In November 2005, Magner teamed with others to create that voice: the St. Thomas Fishermen's Association. Joining Magner were Julian "YumYum" Magras and David A. Olsen, former director of the V.I. Fish and Wildlife and a scientist with more than 35 years of fisheries experience.
"Julian called me and asked about what we should do," Olsen says. "I told him what has to happen is a formal voice, some kind of association. The three of us work well together; we don't overlap. With Julian's willingness to put in enormous hours, and Jimmy's articulate expression and social skills, and my scientific background, we have made significant progress in a very short period of time."
Magner grew up in Frenchtown, raised by his grandparents, Inger Marie and Andre' Mercado, whom he considers his parents. He is a sixth-generation fisherman. He grew up on the bay, learning about fishing from early childhood.
"Fishing was my dad's peace and love," Magner says. "We respect the ocean; we want to keep it clean and treat it fine."
Magner recalls when Quetel would let him up to the "top step." "That's when he'd let me operate the outboard motor when I was about 12 years old. We didn't have TV then — fishing was our life."
Though he will always stop for a good laugh, Magner draws the line when it comes to fishermen's livelihood, their future. He is widely known by his nickname, "Cackabird."
"I don't really remember how I got the name," he says with a laugh. "Maybe talking?"
Had the group not materialized, Olsen says, fishing and fisheries in the Virgin Islands today would be in bad shape.
"We now have three of our members appointed to the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council (CFM) advisory panel, and one to the council's Scientific and Statistical panel," Olsen says. "Magner was named to chair the recently appointed Industry panel. Three of our members sit on the Territorial Fishery Advisory Committee."
In January 2005, the CFM Sustainable Fisheries Act Amendment proposed management measures that included closure of 93 square miles of V.I. shelf to fishing, and seasonal closure for a number of species, mandating restrictions in Puerto Rico and V.I. fishing waters.
The STFA went to work. At the time, Olsen called the 700-page management plan "crap." He and the fishermen insisted the people who developed the report had never been to the Virgin Islands.
"We went to Puerto Rico at our own expense to the CFM in 2005," Magner says. "The information they had was mainly on Puerto Rico waters, and not the Virgin Islands."
Puerto Rico has over fished its resources but he V.I. has not, Olsen says.
Because of local government's failure over decades to supply accurate data necessary for fishery management, Magner says, the federal government proposed its actions because of the lack of available information.
The group used data that was outdated, and not even on the V.I, he says. "That's why, when we challenged them, they had no choice but to back away from the table. The data wouldn't have stood up. They were getting ready to vote and make it law. After what we told them, they realized that there was no way it could have passed without a stain on them. They took a lot out of it. They had never even visited the V.I."
Since the initial confrontation in Puerto Rico, the STFA has worked closely with federal fishery managers, who have encouraged the group to submit grant applications for studies necessary to fill the information void created by the government.
One of the studies has been successfully completed and establishes the health of V.I. fishery resources. Another, currently underway, has already provided nearly 450 round-trip records of discarded catch-by-catch, which represents 25,000 trap hauls and nearly 70,000 pounds of landings.
Fishing is vital to the islands and their economy, the group says, and government records back them up.
Census figures show that the fishing industry generates $10 million in the local economy each year. A 3.5 multiplier shows a $35 million a year figure when restaurant, hotel, charter fishing and other related businesses get figured into the total.
Two more grants are in the works from the NOAA Cooperative Research program, one for $192,230 and another for $165,040. One of the studies proposes a socioeconomic evaluation of the impact of closures on local fishermen. Others address outreach activities, including starting a website, continued publication of the group's "Olewife" newsletter and a non-point source-pollution survey and outreach campaign.
Next month Olsen will travel to Belize for a conference of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute, a regional scientific organization. "I'm giving a paper on the STFA and its efforts to become involved in actively managing the commercial fisheries in the V.I.," he says.
Olsen says he will discuss "our research programs, along with the historical knowledge from generations of fishing in the V.I., which puts us in a unique position to participate in fisheries management. The paper will detail how fisheries management in St. Thomas-St. John is changing because of the STFA's efforts and the benefits of participatory management."
The group continually faces new challenges. Most recently it addressed DPNR's ban on the use of gill nets in St. Croix waters in a Senate committee meeting, a ban the group finds unnecessary. St. Croix has no organized fishermen's group, Magner says, and the STFA is considering creating a St. Croix chapter to give the island a voice.
Another obstacle the group has contended with all year is the renovation of the Gustave Quetel Fish House. Scheduled for completion months ago, the building where fishermen store their gear and refrigerate their catch is still not functional. Work began in March, with the idea that the fishermen could move back into their units.
Lucia Roberts Francis, DPNR environmental enforcement division director, had said the renovations would take about six months. Most recently, Magner said, she told the group they could not move back in until work was finished on the adjacent fish dock. (See "New Plans Provided for Frenchtown Fishing Center.")
The delay upsets Magras and other fishermen: "I live up a hill, and I have to lug all this gear all the way up each day. It's ridiculous."
There is some good news, though. Magner said a mural of his grandfather will go on one of the walls: "I hope he doesn't hear what's going on."
STFA has about 50 members. Dues cost $50 yearly. To contact the association, call 714-2556.
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