Oct. 25, 2004 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the midst of process to reduce the amount of fishing in federal waters near the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by 30 percent, Miguel Rolon, Caribbean Fishery Management Council director, said Monday.
Federal waters are those that lie outside the three-mile limit in the Virgin Islands and the nine-mile limit in Puerto Rico.
This would affect the shelf that runs about 20 miles north of St. Thomas and St. John and another shelf about eight miles south of those two islands. On St. Croix, the Lang Bank located off the eastern end of the island would be affected. All are considered prime fishing grounds.
There are several options being explored. They include total closure in some areas, seasonal closures, gear prohibitions, and gear limitation.
"It doesn't mean it's going to be closed and it doesn't mean it's not going to be closed," Rolon said. The decision lies with the secretary of commerce.
Mike Barnette, a fisheries management specialist at NOAA Fisheries in St. Petersburg, Fla., said that a draft plan should be done by spring 2005, with the final plan in place by fall 2005.
The Caribbean Fishery Management Council will hold public hearings on the issue on Nov. 22 at the Divi Carina Bay on St. Croix and Nov. 23 at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel on St. Thomas. Times are not yet available. Hearings will also be held in Puerto Rico.
The public hearings come on the heels of workshops held in early October on St. Thomas and St. Croix to explain the alternatives to fishermen.
Barnette said a study done in 1998 and 1999 showed that the territory has 349 full and part-time fishermen.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen weighed in on the matter with a press release issued Friday.
"I urge you to choose an alternative that will lessen the impact on my already beleaguered constituents so that they can continue to make a living," she said.
She said that local biologists do not see the reason for the "draconian measures" being proposed.
Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett agreed.
"The data is insufficient and inaccurate," he said.
He said the fishery is already protected at the territory's national monuments Coral Reef National Monument on St. John and Buck Island Reef National Monument on St. Croix and at the East End Marine Park. Additionally, conch and whelk may only be caught in season.
St. Croix fishermen Robert McAuliffe said that too many agencies are involved in managing the territory's waters. He said that fishery management belongs to the Caribbean Fishery Management Council, where he serves as head of the advisory board, but the Interior Department has complicated the matter by creating Coral Reef National Monument and extending Buck Island Reef National Monument.
He said the area added to Buck Island was prime fishing ground.
McAuliffe said the fishermen now have a decreased amount of area to use for fishing.
"And it will get fished out," he predicted.
David Olsen, who served as the first director of Planning's Fish and Wildlife Division when it was elevated from bureau status back around 1980, blames NOAA's push on stateside environmentalists.
"They want to make the ocean a big aquarium. They view fishermen as fish murderers," he said.
He said he has no evidence that the waters are over fished.
And he said it would soon be a moot point because fewer and fewer people pick fishing as an occupation.
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