Aug. 4, 2002 – A group of local scuba divers and support personnel recently volunteered their time, talents and equipment to carry out a plan that was, on the surface, about releasing fish caught in abandoned traps 110 feet underwater, but was in a larger sense about collaboration for the common good.
The collaborators were Blue Island Divers, the University of the Virgin Islands, The Ocean Conservancy, the Planning and Natural Resources Department, Coral World and Ocean Adventure Videos. Their accomplishment, on July 26, was to release fish trapped in 20 abandoned traps located at a shipwreck on the sea floor and then render the traps inoperable.
Christy J. Loomis of the Conservation Data Center at UVI's Eastern Caribbean Center was the instigator of the project. While diving on the shipwreck on July 20, she said, "my dive partner, Jim Wilkinson, and I noticed nine traps that appeared to have been deposited there during a storm or other event." The traps were covered in algae, sponges and corals "but were completely intact and did not appear to have a door," she said. And one trap "had a large porcupine fish trapped inside."
Another diver with them pointed out more traps on the bow of the ship. "But because the water was so deep, we could not stay down longer without risk to verify how many traps were there," Loomis said. Back on the boat, the divers determined that there were at least 15 traps and that "they all appeared to have been there for some time, as what line was attached was wrapped all over the wreck."
The traps were constructed of heavy plastic-coated wire and had no identification tags, she said.
Disturbed by the plight of the fish caught in the traps, Loomis contacted a friend, Bill Rohring, who works in the Coastal Zone Management Division at the Planning and Natural Resources Department, to ask how to report the situation, and to whom. Rohring referred her to DPNR's Environmental Enforcement Division, and there, she said, "I found that the enforcement officers were as passionate as I was in wanting to attempt to do something about so many abandoned traps in one place."
She and Wilkinson sent a letter, photographs and a short video for DPNR to review. "Within a day of presenting the information to DPNR Officer Leslie Christopher, I received a call from Director Lucia Francis," Loomis said. "She stated she would like very much to see something done about this, but she did not have divers available at that time, and would I really be willing to assist?"
Loomis said she would come up with a plan for early the following week. That was a Friday, and before she left her office for the weekend, "I e-mailed all friends and work associates involved in the marine industry, asking for the help of divers with technical or advanced experience, as it was going to be a difficult dive."
A plan, and volunteers to carry it out
She got "positive and immediate" responses, and by Monday morning, Wilkinson had a safe, workable dive plan in place. Blue Island Divers volunteered the use of its boat, its dive shop as a base of operation and several of its divers. Coral World offered six highly competent divers, and UVI supplied nitrox tanks. Ocean Adventure Videos volunteered to record the dive and produce a professional film as documentation of the event and for future technical dive training. The Conservation Data Center allowed Loomis to act as project coordinator. DPNR provided two enforcement officers to act as security and emergency support.
The dive was scheduled for the following Friday. Two days before that, Loomis was speaking with Nick Drayton, representative on St. John of The Ocean Conservancy, about the plan. She recalled, "His comment was, 'Hey, wait a minute, I want to help too. That is what The Ocean Conservancy is all about.' By Friday, he had approval for some funds to help cover expenses, and he showed up at the dive briefing to assist in person."
The July 26 forecast was for high winds and waves with a small craft advisory. Nonetheless, the team came together at the Blue Island shop at the Crown Bay Marina for the dive briefing. After a busy week of four to six excursions a day with tourists, the dive shop staff "changed gears and went into tech mode with all their technical and safety gear ready to go," Loomis said. The boat left the dock at 9 a.m. with a rendezvous set for 9:30 a.m. with DPNR Officers Leroy Jackson and Alvin Powell Jr.
Blue Island owners Sean McKenna and Aitch Liddle were first into the water, Loomis said. Their goal was to map the wreck and have stations assigned when the other divers descended. Ocean Adventure Videos went in next, to be in place to document the process. "Unfortunately, the mapping of the wreck could not be videotaped, as that would have required too much bottom time for that depth" for the video crew, she explained.
The others descended in work groups of two or three. "Without a hitch, the teams opened 20 traps, freeing the porcupine fish that had been trapped the week before," Loomis said. "Everyone returned to the boat well within their no-decompression time limits.
"At the surface we had dive instructor Wendy Dodds waiting for us, to assist in getting all our gear as well as ourselves out of the water. This was very difficult because of the heavy seas. Also on the surface were DPNR Officers Jackson and Powell, who patrolled the area while we were diving … It was comforting to know that there were two competent people with a fast boat available should any of us experience any problems while diving."
The collaborative effort yielded three immediate benefits, Loomis said:
– A reduction in the number of fished killed but unrecoverable, thus directly increasing the supply of fish available to be caught.
– A savings to fishermen of the cost of replacing traps, due to a greater chances of recovering lost traps.
– An opportunity for the divers to develop skills while accomplishing something positive.
Loomis said concern had been expressed about the divers opening traps that were someone else's property. "As professionals, we realize how difficult it is to earn a living working in a marine environment," she said. "We would never open or touch a trap without authorization from DPNR. And we would do everything in our power to contact owners of traps before contacting DPNR looking for approval to open or remove them."
The traps in question were deemed unrecoverable because they were at such an extreme depth, they were completely entangled within the wreck, and there was no identification found on any of the traps, she said.
A further collaboration with fishermen?
Reflecting on the collaborative project afterward, Loomis said this could be just the beginning. "We were able to establish an extremely skilled dive team," she said. "Now that we have all had a taste of the sense of accomplishment that comes from performing a difficult task well, we want to contribute more. We all hope that by extending our collaborative circle to include local fishermen, we can continue to reduce the loss of fish due to unattended traps."
The team would like to propose that if a fisherman loses a trap for any reason, "he would contact DPNR or ourselves," Loomis said. "If the fisherman can identify the trap in any way by type or marker, we could then notify the fisherman as to the location and condition of the trap if we came across it during a dive." The trap owner then would decide if he wanted to retrieve the trap or to ask for the team's assistance in retrieving it.
"If it was determined that the trap could not be recovered, then the fisherman could give authorization to render it inoperable by opening it up," she said. "This would be to his benefit, as it would reduce the chances that the unattended trap could catch fish he would then not be able to
market, as he could not retrieve them."
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.