St. Croix fishermen are banding together to fight a proposal by the Caribbean Fishery Management Council to ban the use of scuba gear to collect conch in federal waters, a move that would essentially put a halt to 90 percent of the conch harvesting in the sea surrounding the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
While most provisions of the councils proposed fishery management plan for queen conch mirror those already in place in the territory, the new provision against using scuba equipment isnt sitting well with the approximately 250 registered commercial fishermen on St. Croix, according to Eddie Schuster, president of the St. Croix Commercial Fishermens Association.
Schuster is trying to rally fishermen to make their presence felt at a council public hearing on the queen conch management plan at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Caravelle Hotel. He and other St. Croix fishermen say the proposals, especially the scuba prohibition, place yet another burden on small, family-run operations.
"What youre saying is you dont want these guys who support restaurants, hotels and tourists with fish . . . to make a living," he said.
BIG BROTHER GOES FISHING
The Caribbean Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional bodies established by federal law to develop management plans for fisheries within the U.S. "exclusive economic zone." In the Virgin Islands, the EEZ extends three miles to 200 miles from the shores of the islands. The area from shore to the three-mile limit belongs to the territory.
According to Miguel Rollon, executive director of the Puerto Rico-based management council, statistics show that "the queen conch fishery is going in a downward trend" in federal waters. Hence the management plan proposals.
In the mid-1990s, the Planning and Natural Resources Department put in place regulations aimed at halting a downward slide in conch harvesting in territorial waters. The regulations include:
a minimum size limit of 9 inches, or 3/8 of an inch shell lip thickness.
a requirement that conch be brought to shore in the shell and a prohibition against selling undersized conch.
a bag limit of 150 queen conch a day for licensed commercial fishermen and three a day for recreational fishers, not to exceed 12 per boat.
a closed season between July 1 and Sept. 30.
But even though most of the federal proposals are the same as the territory's, Robert McAuliffe, president of the Fishermens United Service Cooperative of St. Croix, predicted a large turnout of fisherman at Thursdays hearing. He said that by and large, fisherman support the territorial laws regarding conch, but those dont contain a scuba gear ban.
Because most of the remaining conch beds are in relatively deep - up to 70 feet - federal water outside the three-mile limit, scuba is the only way to harvest. Outlawing scuba would mean no conch, McAuliffe said, or possibly force local fisherman to poach.
"Scuba is probably the primary piece of equipment fishermen use here," he said. "About 75 percent use it in one form or another."
Banning scuba would be "just another headache for us," McAuliffe said.
It would be difficult to enforce, he noted, as "they would have to actually catch the guy in the water with scuba gear on." He added, "We dont have adequate enforcement yet, but they have all these regulations theyre throwing at us. The basic problem is the government doesnt listen to the industry - the fishermen."
IT'S IN THE NUMBERS
As far as federal and local fishery officials are concerned, the need for stricter regulations is basic: Over-fish a species, and nobody will make a living, period. In Florida, Cuba and Bermuda, conch fisheries have virtually collapsed because of over-harvesting, according to the queen conch management plan.
Another threat is posed by on-shore pollution to seagrass beds needed by juvenile conch for feeding and protection.
"If the adult population is over-fished and juvenile habitat is threatened, a long-term sustainable queen conch fishery is not possible," the management plan states.
In the territory, the queen conch fishery has been in decline for more than a decade, according to the plan. On St. Croix, conch harvests in 1991-92 were down more than 50 percent from a decade earlier.
Over-fishing in the St. Thomas-St. John district led to a five-year ban on taking conch. While that ended in 1992, the fishery never made a comeback, because "more restrictive measures were not implemented, and the resource was depleted within a short period of time," the plan says.
Even with the subsequent territorial laws regulating conch, Barbara Kojis, director of DPNRs Division of Fish and Wildlife, said, some fishermen just dont follow the rules. One local law that also is proposed by the Management Council calls for fishermen to bring conch to shore before they cut out the meat.
Kojis said that a recent survey on St. Croix discovered that many of the shells found in piles near boat ramps were below the 9-inch minimum size.
"We found a substantial number that were undersized, like 65 percent," she said. "The rules regarding conch size are to ensure reproduction. If juveniles are collected, they wont reproduce.
"The regulations that are in place right now dont look like they are being followed."
Still, totally closing the conch fishery hasnt been proposed, because of the economic impact such a move would have on commercial fishermen and their families.
ITS A LIVING
Along with his father, brother and cousins, a St. Croix fisherman named "Nicky" is on the water from 6 a.m. to noon -- sometimes six days a week, depending on the weather - fishing for conch and other sources of seafood.
Many times they have to travel 14 miles to find their catch. If its conch, they must lug a boatload of heavy shells back to the island, a dangerous undertaking for a small boat in rough seas. The Management Councils proposed regulations are "too restrictive," Nicky said. "And one right after another. Its getting out of hand."
Its that attitude that worries Oliver Hanley, a businessman who repairs outboard engines and sells tackle. If the fishermen are driven out of business, Hanley noted, he will be, too. On top of it all is the fact that the sea is the only life many fishermen know. Hanley said there are middle-aged men on St. Croix who have been on the water since their teens.
"Most of my customers are fishermen. If they get hurt I feel it," Hanley said. "To be a fisherman, to be doing this as your livelihood, calling it quits isnt that easy."
Thats why Schuster and McAuliffe are working to organize the islands fishermen. Schuster said the Fishermans Association wants to see the Management Council institute a better education program aimed at fishermen. The association will also submit suggestions -- such as a central drop-off point at sea for conch shells so boats dont have to make a dangerous trip back to shore heavily laden.
"Its not that nobody wants to work with Fish and Wildlife and the Council," he said. "But due to the fact that we fish from small vessels, it would be wise for them to designate an area. Then see if we abide by it before coming down and giving such harsh rules."
Meanwhile, Schusters goal is to unite the fishermen in the association while McAuliffe attempts to do the same with the cooperative.
"Were trying to get to be a large enough force that they have to listen to us," McAuliffe said.
Click here to view the Caribbean Fishery Management Council web site.