The Caribbean Fishery Management Council voted and approved a plan for Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands fishery conservation Tuesday, setting the final groundwork for enacting new data collecting rules and fishing limits on 35 species, ranging from queen conch to parrotfish.
The rules, which still need final approval from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, could reduce catches by 15 percent, depending on the species. They are designed to ensure fishermen are not catching fish faster than they can reproduce.
Through a federal law called the Magnuson-Stevens Reauthorization Act, the U.S. government is mandating annual fish catch limits or other fishing limitations be in place by the end of 2010 to prevent a fisheries collapse.
The law directs regional regulatory bodies under the Department of Commerce, like council, put together plans, with public input, that meet the federal requirements.
Caribbean islands will get their own individual limits and rules, so regulations for Puerto Rico will not apply to fishermen in St. Croix and vice-versa.
This final plan is based on recommendations from the council’s scientific experts and an advisory panel composed of recreational and commercial fishermen.
At a series of public meetings last year, fishermen throughout the territory repeatedly expressed a desire to have any local regulations be informed by local—not regional—data, as well as concerns that increased data collection might be costly or result in yet more limits on fishing.
Few at those meetings denied the need for some limits and regulations to preserve sustainability, but many wanted to ensure final regulations and information-gathering requirements be as unrestrictive as practical.
The Pew Environment Group, a national environmental think tank within the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, and the V.I. Conservation Society offered qualified praise for the plan in a joint statement Tuesday.
"This plan is an important first step toward sustainable fishing, protecting coral reefs and allowing species to rebound," said Holly Binns, manager of the Pew Environment Group’s Campaign to End Overfishing in the Southeast. "(B)ut we are disappointed that parts of the plan were weakened," she said.
"As Caribbean fish populations continue to decline, this is the time for strong action … As fishery managers collect more information about fish populations, we’ll see if these measures are strong enough to get the job done and end overfishing,” she said.
Paul Chakroff, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association and a V.I. Conservation Society board member, gave a similar assessment.
"The plan is a step in the right direction, although it could have been stronger," Chakroff said. "Without healthy fish populations, the ocean ecosystem suffers, our world-renowned coral reefs decline, and we all endure the consequences."
He described the plan as "a solid foundation," but said "stronger action may be needed in the future."
This plan is only the most recent effort by fishery managers to end overfishing. In 1990, they set restrictions on some fishing gear and prohibited the catch of some fish. And in 2005, fishing limits for other species were enacted but not made binding.
According to the statement from Pew and the society, fishermen affected by the cuts may be able to supplement their income through legislation that is gaining steam in the U.S. Congress, according to the St. Croix Environmental Association.
They say about 60 lawmakers, including Delegate Donna Christensen, are pushing the Coastal Jobs Creation Act, which would provide $80 million over five years to help fishermen while fish populations are restored.
The measure would create jobs for fishermen to perform research with scientists, remove marine debris, revitalize ports and participate in projects to restore fish habitat.
Now that the plan has been approved, it will be submitted to the Department of Commerce, which will then begin drafting regulations based on that plan.