Home News Local news V.I. Fishermen Angle for Support in Nation's Capital

V.I. Fishermen Angle for Support in Nation's Capital


Julian Magras and Jimmy Magner returned home to St. Thomas Wednesday energized from their appearance before Congress testifying on the effects of proposed federal fishing regulations on the Virgin Islands —- regulations which they say are unfair to the territory’s commercial fishermen.
Magras, chairman of the St. Thomas Fishermen’s Association, and Magner, association president—along with association chief scientist David Olsen and Eddie Schuster of the St. Croix Commercial Fishermen’s Association—traveled to Washington, D.C., to address the U.S. House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife.
Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen welcomed the fishermen, calling their testimony "important for the promotion of healthy and sustainable fisheries in the territory." Christensen, who has been a strong supporter of the fishermen for years, introduced Magras, the association’s testifier.
Magras addressed the restrictions on fishery limits and allowable catch, mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006 to protect targeted fish species from overfishing. Under the law, annual catch limits are to be set by 2010 to prevent a fisheries collapse.
Magras described a deteriorating relationship between the association and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Caribbean Fishery Management Council (CFMC) over the catch limits as the 2010 deadline nears.
In a series of meetings meeting over the past year before the council, the association has defended its members in the face of catch restrictions they contend stem from inaccurate data, may be illegal, and could leave them standing empty-handed on the shore.
Citing the two organizations’ "draconian" catch reductions, Magras read from a prepared statement, calling the process determining certain species as overfished, as "unscientific, subjective and inappropriate, once the CFMC determined to manage by fishing areas, rather than single region.
"The manner in which these actions are being taken," Magras told the committee, "show a significant disregard for facts on the ground and the Virgin Islands’ community and culture."
One of the sticking points, he noted, is that none of the data being used comes from the fishermen, themselves.
Since 1974, V.I. fishermen have been submitting annual landing reports, in the belief that the data was being used to manage the fishery resources and was approved by the NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center.
The center maintains that the data cannot be used for setting annual catch limits and that reductions between 25 to 75 percent will have to be made to account for "data uncertainty." "This is data they have been approving for the past 35 years," Magras emphasized.
"Uncertainty of this magnitude would devastate the fishery and the community which depends on the local fishery," he said.
Magras said the process is "discriminatory" and its impacts are disproportionately felt by V.I. fishermen. He added that 89 percent of the shelf area under the council’s jurisdiction lies in the V.I. fishery area. In management terms, this means that any measure proposed by the council will impact V.I. fishing areas by a factor of nearly 9-1. Data, therefore, used from Puerto Rico is being used to set limits that, Magras contends, are unfair to V.I. fishermen.
He concluded, "It is our hope that the fisheries service can begin to realize that the government should serve the public and the resources users, and not simply impose its will through setting arbitrary standards."
Magras and Magner reflected on their whirlwind visit Wednesday afternoon, first of all lauding Christensen for her efforts to get them to the nation’s capital. "She even called the hospital, where I work, to tell them it’s imperative I get the time off," Magras added.
They said the territory is not alone in its concerns with the proposed restrictions, after hearing from other jurisdictions (i.e., New Hampshire, Georgia, even British Columbia) about what they call the "arbitrary" 2010 deadline.
They hope to be able to work with the regulators to secure an equitable future for the territory’s fishing industry. But it’s not an easy process. They must forward their final draft recommendations to the council, which will send them to the fisheries service, which may or may not agree.
"There’s too many ‘if’s,’" said Magras.
Ultimately, the regulations will be forwarded to the Secretary of Commerce, where, the U.S. Fisheries Service will decide whether to approve the regulations, early in 2010—a date Magras and Magner say is not realistic.
What the fishermen did agree on is that for an organization barely five years old, making itself heard in the halls of Congress is a "pretty good catch." Next, Magner said with a laugh, "It’s the Oval Office."


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