April 25, 2005 – Carlos Ponce, 63, has been a fisherman since he was a teenager – almost fifty years. He raised his family on the bounty of the sea. It's an unpredictable life he says. "Some days you win and some days you lose," he says.
It's easy to tell that Ponce is a fisherman. His tan is etched deep into his skin from countless hours under the blazing sun, deep creases frame his eyes; his hair, turned gray many years ago, is cut low on his head. Ponce contemplates the closure of the pier which is his livelihood. "If it's closed just two weeks its okay," he said. "The fishermen can launch their boats from the container port, Salt River or Christiansted."
Ponce is just one of the many fishermen who launch their boats daily from the small pier behind the Frederiksted fish market. Today they are optimistic about the impending completion of the project. The pier and boat access ramp was first destroyed in Hurricane Hugo in 1989. In 1999, Hurricane Lenny damaged the dock further. Since then, there has been a litany of promises, postponements, start-ups, failures and more promises. The new contractor, Carlos Zenon, of Zenon Construction, says he can get the job done.
Officials from Fish and Wildlife, Department of Planning and Natural Resources, fishermen and some senators met at the pier Monday morning to announce the temporary closing of the facility. Zenon said his company will build a "coffer dam" that will help them complete the work as quick and efficiently as possible. A "coffer dam" is a wall of sand bags made of about 6,000 plastic bags filled with sand. The dam will be four to six feet wide and extend about six feet into the sea. A mechanical pump is used to displace the water so the workers can work "in the dry."
Zenon said that once the dam is built, the reconstruction of the boat access ramps will take about two weeks. While the ramps are being rebuilt, preliminary work will be done on the pier. When the ramps are finished, fishermen can launch their boats while the work on the pier is being completed, he said.
In Dec. 2002 the fisherman's pier and boat access ramp was closed for renovation. (See "Fisherman's Pier Closed For Reconstruction"). At that time fishermen asked about a temporary ramp to launch their boats until the construction was completed. (See "Fishermen Want An Available Ear In Government"). The subject came up again on Tuesday.
Kendall "Sego" Petersen suggested requesting a temporary ramp from the V.I. National Guard. Another suggestion was to use the end of Queen Cross Street, a site used before the present pier and boat access ramp were built. Robert McAuliffe, Fish Advisory Council president, said Queen Cross Street is the only street in Frederiksted that ends right at the sea.
"The area was used to launch boats when I was a kid growing up," he said. The fishermen good-naturedly chided McAuliffe at that remark, probably trying to imagine the scruffy-faced McAuliffe as a barefoot kid running the streets of Frederiksted. McAuliffe asked Zenon if he could prepare the location to launch boats. But Zenon said late Monday that his experts advised him that the sea bed would require too much preparation. He also said the cost was not included in his contract.
Zenon was part of a group of contractors who gathered at the site for a pre-bid meeting on March 29, to get a first hand look at the work to be done on the pier. At that time Zenon expressed doubt that the pier and boat access ramp could be built according to established specifications. "The way the plans are designed you don't have the depth of the water," Zenon said in March. "The ramp has to be removed and put in right." (See "Officials Hopeful on Frederiksted Pier, Fishermen, Contractors Not So Sure").
Monday, Zenon was more optimistic. "We are going to do it and we are going to do it according to plans and specifications," he said.
While the reconstruction takes place, fishermen wait to resume the life they have carved out of the sea. "Some of the fishermen won't go out, they won't launch their boats from anywhere but Frederiksted," said Ponce.
Fisherman Daniel Ponce, 37, said he's been going fishing from the pier since he was fifteen, now, he is raising a family on his take from the sea. "For as long as it's been down, two weeks is okay," he said.
Fishing runs in his family. "He's my uncle," Daniel said, pointing to the elder Ponce. "Fishing is my inheritance."
Some will opt to take their boats to other locations around the island. Some will come down to the fish market every day as they usually do and monitor the work being done. Others will come to exchange fishing stories or take turns bending over a home-made checkerboard balanced on their knees until they can throw out their nets into the sea again.
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