Setting the hook on a tarpon is almost a religious experience. The adrenaline that flows through my system elevates me to a mystical level of existence. Watching the tarpon jump and shake and rattle the tip of my rod causes a feeling of near euphoria. At the end, letting the tarpon live to fight another day brings a sense of satisfaction that only an angler can comprehend.
On the other hand, killing fish by the basket load is a terrible crime against nature. Worldwide, fisheries are in decline. There are numerous studies currently documented that show that global fish populations are reaching unsustainable levels. Some species of fish have become "commercially extinct," meaning that there are so few left, there is no accurate or effective way to harvest them.
In the Virgin Islands, we have our own microcosm of this global phenomenon at Buck Island. In a study conducted from 1977 to 1979, the West Indies Lab conducted a survey of fish species at the Buck Island National Monument. Many of those species are no longer found in great numbers there, and some are very scarce. The queen triggerfish, tiger and yellow fin groupers and two different species of snapper are in short supply at Buck Island. The Nassau grouper is no longer found there.
Reduction in the diversity of species can lead to an unstable ecosystem. For fishermen, a reduction in the number of fish that are large enough to reproduce can lead to smaller numbers in catches. Yet, many local fishermen feel that the new rules prohibiting all extractive collection of fish at Buck Island are unfair. It is important to note that the Buck Island restrictive area represents only 7.5 percent of all available shelf-edge fishing area in the waters surrounding St. Croix.
While the fishermen have some legitimate complaints about the shrinking size of available fishing area on St. Croix, they are not without their share of guilt for the problems of a declining fish population. Incidental trapping of fish in derelict traps — which means those no longer checked by a fisherman — has caused large fish kills. More insidious is the "ghost trap," which is a trap that has had its line severed from its buoy. The "ghost trap" is certain death to fish within it, because no fisherman will retrieve it to cast out the unwanted catches.
Now, traps use stainless steel wire in their trapping mechanism. In the old days, biodegradable materials such as cotton or hemp were used on traps. That meant that a "ghost trap" would not be lethal after it had been severed from its line. Stainless steel leads to a terrible waste of fish.
Fishermen have a right to demand places where they can earn their living catching fish. They also have a right to complain about unreasonable regulation that prevents them from earning a living. On the other hand, complaining about the new regulations at Buck Island entirely misses the point. The point is: One cannot fish until all the fish are gone. The National Park Service is merely trying to rebuild a vital natural resource at Buck Island. The fishermen would be smart to try to help in the effort.
Editor's note: Bill Turner is a writer, a former history teacher and the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association. He writes a daily commentary on events in the Virgin Islands that can be accessed at V.I. Buzz.
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