Dec. 5, 2002 – A liaison between the commercial fishing community and the government on St. Croix is sorely needed, participants in a meeting of the Fish Advisory Council this week concluded.
A handful of fishermen gathered on Wednesday night to air their concerns on various issues to several current senators and two incoming members of the 25th Legislature.
"The Virgin Islands fishing industry has the potential to produce $50 million per year for the territory," the group's president, Robert McAuliffe, said. "But there's no representation within the government for the fisheries. There's no one the fishermen can go to."
He said many grants are available to help the fishermen, but without a trained specialist within the government, the territory is left out of the loop.
McAuliffe added that the V.I. Agriculture Department does not have money in its budget to hire such a staff member. Thus, he said, the fishermen have no choice but to take their concerns to the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Enforcement Division, which he said already is stretched to its limits.
Regulatory enforcement is another problem plaguing the fishing industry in the territory, McAuliffe said.
Planning and Natural Resources is short of both personnel and money for supplies, according to enforcement officer Howard Forbes, who attended the meeting. He said fishing regulation violators often are not brought to justice because the cases are put aside by the V.I. Justice Department. He said money from tickets issued goes to the courts, rather than DPNR.
The department is working on a new ticketing procedure that would bring some of the money back, he said, but a glitch in the printed ticket books has held up its implementation.
Forbes said St. Croix has 12 DPNR enforcement officers to monitor the entire island. While they need to be on duty 24 hours a day, he said, "we're working now with only two shifts."
An estimated 500 people make their living fishing the waters around St. Croix, McAuliffe said, but about half of them are licensed. "A lot are coming in from Santo Domingo and other places, and fishing is what they did there," he said. "They're breaking almost every law in the books, and Enforcement knows who they are."
Frederiksted fishermen are facing particular problems: A revamping of the Fishermen's Pier, damaged in hurricanes since Hugo in 1989, was to have gotten under way at the start of this month. It hasn't, and, meanwhile, no alternative boat-launching site has been established for use while the construction work is taking place.
When the project was announced, the plan was to shut down one side of the pier at a time and open a previously unused area for launching. But because the construction site could present a hazard, McAuliffe said, "They're saying the entire facility will be shut down and cannot be used for 60 days. And we all know it will be longer than that."
He added: "You're going to put these people out of business for three or four months by not following the original bid. The fishermen are dumbfounded."
As things now stand, the closest launch site is Krause Lagoon, Forbes said. After a lengthy discussion, however, he said he would take a suggestion to Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett that a temporary site be opened in Frederiksted near Changes In Latitudes restaurant.
Sens. Douglas Canton and Norman Jn Baptiste and Senators-elect Raymond "Usie" Richards and Luther Renee attended the meeting. Senator and Lt. Gov.-elect Vargrave Richards made a brief appearance.
"We will consult with one another and see how we're going to proceed," Jn Baptiste said.
Richards said legislative action to create a position of fishing community liaison within the government should be a last resort, and that it is the responsibility of the executive branch to address the matter.
McAuliffe said after the meeting that its political audience was the "best yet" for a discussion of the fishermen's concerns. "This is the first time we've really had the ear of the Senate, and I'm hoping this is a sign we're finally going to get the attention we need," he said.
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