Earlier this month, a local citizen contacted the Source regarding concern over the possibility that a fisher on a St. Thomas-based recreational charter fishing boat had been issued a commercial fishing license and was selling off catch.
The matter raised a red flag, since it’s uncommon for fishers on a recreational charter boat to have a commercial fishing license, let alone to be granted one recently, given that no new commercial licenses have been issued in over 15 years.
Howard Forbes, director of environmental enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said he’s not sure how that rumor started, since no new commercial fishing licenses have been granted to fishers on recreational fishing boats.
Forbes said that it’s possible that someone who works on the recreational charter fishing boat could be selling fish illegally and that DPNR will look into the matter. But even so, the company would not have been granted a commercial fishing license.
Recreational charter fishing companies usually allow patrons to take some of the fish they catch for consumption or employees can have it, but it’s illegal to sell fish without a commercial license. If the someone who works for the boat is selling fish, its difficult to catch the person in the act if the restaurant or person buying it doesn’t contact DPNR.
“Usually the fishing community talks to us when there is a concern like this but we haven’t heard anything about it yet,” Forbes said.
Commercial fishing licenses can only be granted to individuals rather than boats. There’s only one type of commercial fishing license, but fishers can have part-time or full-time licenses depending on whether or not fishing is their sole source of income.
There’s also a lesser known license called a fisher’s helper, which allows a person to fish in the presence of a licensed commercial fisher. A commercial fisher is permitted to have up to four helpers at a time.
Issuing fisher’s helper ID cards has significantly helped DPNR keep tabs on those who are catching and selling fish in the Virgin Islands and to make sure they are doing so legally, Forbes said.
Forbes continued that it’s possible that someone with a fisher’s helper license could be selling fish from the recreational charter fishing boat in question, but explained that doing so is illegal since it was likely done without a commercial fisher license holder on board during the catch or present at the sale.
“A helper’s ID can easily be mistaken for a commercial license, since they look pretty similar,” Forbes said, adding that it’s up to the buyer of the fish, which includes individuals and restaurants, to ask to see a fisher’s commercial license to verify.
To educate on how to legally purchase fish and other seafood, as well as on which fish are the most sustainable to eat, DPNR has distributed information packets to the territory’s restaurants in recent years.
Forbes said that outside of the fishing community, not many people know the rules and regulations of selling and purchasing locally caught fish.
Since 2001 there’s been a moratorium on issuing new commercial fishing licenses but fishing licenses can be transferred. Typically licenses are transferred between family members and the receiving person must be a resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
If the commercial fisher has no family members, the license can be transferred to a fisher’s helper. Or if the person has living family members but they don’t want the license, the family can submit a notarized letter authorizing the helper to receive it.
According to DPNR media relations coordinator Jamal Nielsen, the moratorium followed the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which mandated that actions be taken to both reduce potential overfishing impacts and to rebuild struggling fisheries. As a result of the act, some areas were closed to fishing and a ban was put on gill and trammel nets.
Nielsen said the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act has established Annual Catch Limits (ACLs) to help prevent overfishing as well.
“If the catch of a species or group of fish approaches or meets the ACL, accountability measures would be enacted to ensure that the limit is not exceeded,” Nielsen added.
While the names of individuals who hold commercial fishing licenses are confidential, there are approximately 235 register commercial fishers in the territory. There are around 125 in St. Croix and around 110 in the St. Thomas and St. John district with less than 10 on St. John.
Anglers who want more information can download the Fisher’s Handbook.