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Disappearing Fish Forcing Action, Regulations

Oct. 6, 2004 – Something has to change in the way reef fish, lobster and conch are harvested in the shallow waters off the coasts of the Virgin Islands, according to William Tobias of the Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division.
Tobias said Wednesday there have been drastic changes in the local fishery in the last couple decades. He said, "Many species which were once common and abundant are no longer common and abundant."
He cites several reasons for the fishery's potential for collapse – poor fishing practices, land-based pollution and global warming.
One species in jeopardy is the Nassau grouper. Tobias said fishermen are very good at what they do. He said they learned to target the groupers when they came together to spawn. This made for abundant catches, but, Tobias said, "the grouper no longer aggregates to spawn."
The problems with the fishery, according to Tobias, probably intensified in the early 90s.
As the Virgin Islands were hit by seven major hurricanes starting in 1989, many fishermen lost the means by which they did their traditional fishing – fish traps.
At about the same time, certain nets were being banned in the waters off the Southern United States. Tobias said, "Vendors began looking for another market for their product and they found one in the Virgin Islands.
He said some of the nets now used by Virgin Islanders are 1,500 feet in length, set by divers and can haul in as much as an 800-pound catch at one time. He said whole breeding populations have been devastated.
According to Tobias, environmentalists have become concerned the United States government is not effectively managing its fisheries and sued the government.
This has forced the Caribbean Fishery Management Council to look at new methods to protect the federal waters off the Virgin Islands. The V.I. government regulates fishing practices in the waters within three miles of its coastline, but the waters from three miles out to 200 miles out are under federal regulations. However, Tobias said that for any plan to be effective, the V.I. government and federal government would want to have "compatible" regulations.
Tobias said alternative methods for protecting the fishery cover a broad spectrum. Fishing for certain species could be banned. Fishing could be banned for certain seasons. Certain fishing devices could be prohibited.
V.I. fishermen this week are getting the opportunity to find out what the research shows and what the alternatives are.
About 50 residents attended a workshop at the Holiday Inn on Tuesday on St. Thomas to hear the discussion.
The fishery management council is holding a second meeting on Wednesday night from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Divi Bay Beach Hotel on St. Croix. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss measures being considered to amend the Sustainable Fisheries Act.
Tobias said the net effect of the new regulations must be to reduce the fishery harvest by 35 percent. He said this could be accomplished through different regulations for different islands.
There are 220 commercial fishermen on St. Croix and 150 on St. Thomas and St. John.
Areas that would be affected by the regulations, which would only apply to federal waters less than 200 fathoms deep, would be Lang Bank, east of St. Croix, and certain waters north of St. Croix and St. Thomas.
The regulations will have less effect on Puerto Rico because its territorial waters extend out nine miles.
The management council expects to come back to the Virgin Islands in November to hold more meetings on specific proposals.
Tobias said that if the management council does not make this happen, the federal government would have to step in.
This is not a new issue. In the summer of 2000, about 30 Crucians attended a meeting when the council proposed closing federal waters for conch fishing.
(See "Fishermen: Don't Close Federal Conch Fishery").
The fishermen also had concerns about the possible banning of using scuba gear in conch fishing.
This April the council held meetings on all three islands seeking the first input about possible regulations.
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