Nov. 30, 2004 — One after another, government officials, commercial and recreational fishermen decried a federal proposal Monday night presented by The Caribbean Fishery Management Council. If implemented, the plan could increase restricted fishing areas to a total of 50 percent of the territory's fishable waters.
Dean Plaskett, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, and Delegate Donna M. Christensen put their objections on the record saying data collected to support the closings did not represent the fish population of the Virgin Islands.
The threat of additional restrictions on fishable waters was the topic of a public hearing at the Divi Carina Bay Resort conference room. The meeting was the first of six called by the Fishery Council to address a comprehensive federal amendment to all the fishery management plans of the U.S. Caribbean. The council says the restrictions are necessary to "curb over-fishing, allow for the longterm rebuilding of fish populations that are over-fished or undergoing over-fishing, and in the long term to maintain healthy fisheries."
Along with other restrictions, the proposal calls for year-round or seasonal closure of Grammanic Bank south of St. Thomas and Lang Bank, located east of St. Croix
Christensen expressed strong opposition to the amendment. "We will not stand by and permit the closure of 30 percent of fishable waters in and around the territory without demonstrable and convincing proof of the absolute necessity of such draconian action, and without proof that other measures would not also be effective," Christensen told the panel. She also pointed out restrictions already in place. "We have a total of 7.3 nautical miles of closure within the National Park units on St. Croix and St. John. The two new National Coral Reef Monuments has 48.4 nautical miles of closures. And the total areas of planned No-Take Zones in the Territorial Marine Park are 5.7 miles," Christensen said. "And if you add the proposed 170 nautical miles of the proposed CFMC closure, nearly 50 percent of the V.I. shelf will be closed or proposed for closure."
Christensen said there is no evidence to support the proposition that there is over-fishing in the Virgin Islands, and she said the Fishery Council used "Puerto Rico data to characterize Virgin Islands fisheries."
Plaskett read a statement from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in which Turnbull cited the recent restriction of V.I. fishermen to fish in BVI waters "The recent termination of the Reciprocal Fisheries Agreement between the government of the United States of America and the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland closed an area the size of the entire St. Thomas/St. John shelf to USVI fishers."
Turnbull suggested the council might have ulterior motives regarding the closures. "I am seriously concerned that the management measures listed have been primarily proposed to resolve over-fishing in Puerto Rico," Turnbull said. "USVI fishers should not have to pay for over-fishing simply because 67 percent of the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] lies off the U.S. Virgin Islands."
The U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, declared by Presidential Order in 1983, includes the sea floor extending 200 nautical miles away from all U.S. possessions and trust territories.
Plaskett told the panel that V.I. data was not used to justify closings. "The draft states that there are no data available on USVI fisheries,ì Plaskett said. "In fact there are three long-term USVI fisheries data sets available to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] fisheries."
Plaskett said there is no data to support designating the yellowtail snapper, grouper, parrotfish or triggerfish "at risk," something the Fishery Council report suggests.
Plaskett said the V.I. government does not support a total prohibition or phase-out of the use of fish traps in the EEZ, finds no basis to support the queen conch being over-fished, and does not support prohibiting the use of pots/traps on coral or hard-bottom habitat year round in the existing seasonally closed area.
"The proposed closures," Plaskett said, "would have severe socio-economic impacts on USVI fishers. No consideration has been given to USVI fishing communities."
At least eight residents who use the waters around St. Croix for commercial, recreational fishing or tourism-related uses also testified at Monday's hearing.
Edgar Jeffers, a 30-year resident and a commercial fisherman, told the panel he hopes they would "come to a better decision" regarding the proposed closings. "If you take away Lang Bank, we the fishermen will suffer, if you take it away what will you give us in return?"
Commercial fisherman Tom Daley told the panel "our future has been forged." Daley said St. Croix cannot compete with other Caribbean islands as a tourist attraction but eco tourism such as recreational fishing was an option. He asked the panel to "give us a piece of the pie."
Paul Andersen, a recreational angler, said the Freedom to Fish Act protects the rights of the public to fish for sport.
The Fishery Council's voting members are: Chairperson Eugenio Pineiro-Soler (P.R.); vice chair Virdin C. Brown (STX); Marcos R. Hanke (P.R.) and Monica Lester (STT).
The Caribbean Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils, established under PL 94-265, known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act or the Sustainable Fisheries Act as amended in 1996, for the conservation and orderly utilization of the fishery resources of the United States. The 10-member council is headquartered in San Juan and includes Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The council is responsible for the creation of management plans for fishery resources in waters off Puerto Rico and the USVI. Management plans are submitted to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for approval and implementation in the EEZ upon approval of the Federal Regulation. Local governments adopt compatible legislation for the conservation of the fishery resources within local waters around Puerto Rico and the USVI.
Copies of the 700-page proposal are available at public libraries on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m.Tuesday on at the Windward Passage Holiday Inn St. Thomas. Following the V.I. meetings, four additional hearings will be held in different locations in Puerto Rico. The amendment will be voted on in January 2005.
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