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PUBLIC INPUT SOUGHT FOR LOCAL MARINE PARKS

July 24, 2001 — Even with the insistence of the government’s top environmental officials at a town meeting Monday night that a proposed marine park around the east end of St. Croix is far from finalized, local fishermen eyed the plan with skepticism.
The first part of the Department of Planning and Natural Resource’s marine park plan for the territory includes the St. Croix East End Marine Park, said Dean Plaskett, commissioner of DPNR. But before any boundaries are drawn for a park, Plaskett told fishermen that their input – along with other stakeholders – is vital to a successful plan.
"Our extremely limited marine resources are utilized heavily by a variety of users and also provide the livelihood for many of our fisherman," Plaskett told an audience of about 60, half of whom were fishermen. "With your input, we will develop a plan . . . that takes into consideration those areas already off-limits, those areas that are controversial, those areas that must be protected, and those areas that provide a livelihood for our fellow Virgin Islanders."
Despite Plaskett’s assurances, fishermen – many of whom only speak Spanish – believe a park proposal means that a large part of their fishing grounds will become off-limits. Such a move, in tandem with existing and proposed boundaries around the National Park Service’s Buck Island Reef National Monument, would be the death knell for the local fishing industry.
"We aren’t against protecting what we have," said fisherman Jose Sanchez. "You have to remember that fishermen are one of the Virgin Islands industries.
"Our concern today is protecting what we have. And I’m here to protect my five kids and my wife," Sanchez said.
Plaskett, however, was adamant that nothing will be done without the input of fishermen, or anyone else.
"I don’t think you should see this as a threat. The fact of the matter is we want your input," Plaskett said, noting that without some form of conservation, the fishing industry would decline as well. "The fact of the matter is if we don’t do it, you won’t have any resources anyway.
"You could fish all you want today and take all you want today, but what would be left for the children of the future?"
Janice Hodge, director of the Division of Coastal Zone Management, the agency overseeing the marine park effort, said that up to now, efforts have been focused on acquiring funding from the federal government and coordinate the involvement of the Nature Conservancy and the University of the Virgin Islands. No uses — be it fishing, diving or boating – in the proposed marine park have been marked off the map.
"What we want to stress is we’re here with a blank slate. There are no lines," Hodge said.
Monument melee
If the St. Croix East End Marine Park contains no-fishing zones it will depend on whether or not the Buck Island Reef National Monument expansion sticks.
Just prior to the end of the Clinton administration in January, the U.S. Interior Department extended the monument area around the existing park, which is managed by the U.S. National Park Service, and created the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument off St. John.
The move not only spurred cries of protest from fishermen who say the expansion eliminates more of their fishing area, but caused the Turnbull administration to challenge Interior’s position. Plaskett and former DPNR commissioner Virdon Brown contend that the submerged lands claimed by Interior actually belong to the Virgin Islands.
Plaskett said the question is still being hashed out between the two parties. In the meantime, however, DPNR will go ahead with the territorial marine park plan, which has actually been on the drawing board for decades, and as part of the larger U.S. Coral Reef Task Force.
"What we are doing is allowing the process to take its course," Plaskett, a lawyer, said of the Turnbull administration’s challenge to the monument designations. Once the federal government make a determination, "then we will know what our next step will be."
The goal of the coral reef initiative is to protect what is left of quickly diminishing healthy areas of coral reef, including what is found around St. Croix. As a part of the Coral Reef Task Force, the V.I. government has signed on to protect at least 5 percent of all coral reefs under the American flag by 2002; 10 percent by 2005 and 20 percent by 2010. Part of the effort calls for 20 percent of those areas to be held as no-take zones.
But with the legal challenges around the monument issue, and the practical challenges presented by fishermen, Plaskett said DPNR plans to use the 20 percent no-take reference point as just that – a reference point.
"While no-take zones may be designated for the St. Croix East End Marine Park, there will be no implementation of these management strategies until the issues surrounding the monument designations are resolved," he said.
The 20 percent no-take zone reference, Plaskett noted, comprises all no-take areas within the territory regardless if they are managed by the National Park Service or the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council.
"If those areas are already no-take zones, it would make no sense for us to do that," he said.
Meanwhile, it was pointed out at the meeting on Monday that fishing isn’t the only activity that damages coral and the aquatic life that depends on it.
More than one fishermen talked about the government's sewage discharges into the sea and the outfall from the rum distillery on St. Croix. Nick Drayton of the Nature Conservancy noted that the degradation of reefs and the ensuing decline in fish populations agreed that the problems aren't caused by one factor.
"It’s not just about fishermen," he said. "It’s multifaceted."
He pointed to runoff from land caused by poor construction methods that silts up reef areas and damage cause by recreational activities, such as boating and divers.

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