Feb. 16, 2007 — A move is under way to overturn the territorial regulation that bans the use of gill nets in fishing. Signed into law last summer by former Gov. Charles Turnbull, the ban was set to start Jan. 1.
However, St. Croix fisherman Gerson Martinez said Friday that fishermen received an extension to keep using the nets. That extension expires in three weeks.
Gill nets are used only on St. Croix by a total of nine fishermen. The nets, which are staked to the ocean floor, entangled and capture fish that swim in them. The goal is to catch parrotfish to use for food.
Martinez said the nets are set in the morning and removed at the end of the day.
Conservationists are aghast to learn that the fishermen had written Gov. John deJongh asking that the regulation be overturned.
"These nets have the capacity to harvest large numbers of fish out of the reef system," St. Croix Environmental Association Director Carol Cramer-Burke said Friday.
She said that in addition to parrotfish, other species, including turtles, get caught in the gill nets. Cramer-Burke said the reefs are already stressed from environmental factors, sewage and sedimentation.
According to Cramer-Burke, the parrotfish caught by the St. Croix fishermen eat the algae that grow on the reefs. Fewer parrotfish mean less cleaning, which allows the algae to grow at a greater rate and further damage the already-stressed reefs.
She also noted that not all corals grow in reef systems, which puts stray corals at risk from the nets.
Cramer-Burke said that even if the fishermen do not anchor their nets on top of the reefs, they can drift onto reefs with the currents or when they come loose.
"We find ghost nets floating in the sea and catching everything before them," she said.
David Olsen, who heads the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Fish and Wildlife Division, sees it differently. He said that gill nets can be used if the fisheries are properly managed.
He said that managing fisheries using gill nets should call for quotas and reporting of the number of fish caught. Olsen said studies showed that the territory is not overfished. "But that doesn't mean it doesn't need managing," Olsen said.
However, Cramer-Burke said that studies are based on voluntary data from the fishermen, not scientific studies. She said the fishermen's data isn't accurate because they rely on their memories to submit numbers when it comes time to renew their yearly licenses.
She said that dive operators report seeing fewer fish than in previous years.
Michele Pugh, who owns Dive Experience in Christiansted, started diving the waters around St. Croix in 1977. She estimated that only about 10 percent of the fish remain.
"Many of the larger species like the rainbow, midnight and blue parrotfish are totally gone," she said.
She said only a rare juvenile Nassau grouper swims by, and she never sees sharks and large snappers like the rock hind.
Pugh said the only fish left are the ones like soldier fish and grunts that stick close to the reef.
Martinez said he's out there fishing every day and he still sees fish.
Pugh indicated that the territory's tourism industry is linked to the amount of fish in the water. She said that St. Croix's seven dive operators pool funds to advertise on the mainland.
The tourists that come for the diving stay in hotels, take taxi rides and help pay the salaries of numerous other people. "A handful of people are ruining the economy of St. Croix," Pugh said.
Olsen noted, however, that a Fish and Wildlife study indicated that the fishing industry across the Virgin Islands is valued at $8 million to $10 million. When that trickles down, he said it becomes a $35 million industry.
Olsen said that gill nets came into use after Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995 because fishermen who lost their traps didn't have the funds to replace them.
Martinez said that he makes between $40,000 and $80,000 annually by gill netting. And he said that local restaurants buy about 200 pounds of fish every two or three days.
He said its too expensive to get into other types of fishing, such as traps and line fishing. He said it costs $10,000 to buy materials for 60 traps, but the traps are often lost or caught by large ships in the area.
Martinez said that it costs $1,200 a week for gas to go line fishing, which is more than he can afford to pay.
He said that a plan for Fish and Wildlife to buy back the fishermen's gill nets will only give the fishermen between $600 and $18,000, depending on their average catch for the last five years.
Martinez said he's supposed to get $5,000, which he said wasn't enough to buy any other kind of fishing equipment.
Cramer-Burke agreed that the fishermen weren't getting enough money to start over with a new method of fishing but said that public meetings were held on the issue in which both fishermen and people who use the water for other purposes participated. She said the process took five years.
She questioned why, at this late date, the fishermen are suddenly complaining. "They've know since last summer that this was going to happen," she said.
She suggested that fishermen give the new regulation some time to see how it works before asking that the ban on gill nets be overturned.
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