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Proposed Ban on Gill Nets Meets with Little Resistance on St. Thomas

Feb. 4, 2005 – Few fishermen attended a meeting Thursday night to voice opposition to proposed bans on nets officials say are harmful to the industry.
Both the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix Fisheries Advisory Councils say the nets decimate entire schools of fish with enormous potential for waste, said Eddie Shuster, a fisherman and chairman of the St. Croix council.
Fishermen use scuba equipment to install the 400-foot to 1200-foot nets in areas where fish are known to migrate to and from feeding grounds, Schuster said.
Once in place, the nets trap indiscriminately until removed, sometimes ensnaring and drowning endangered sea turtles. Other times nets are left unchecked until hundreds of trapped fish rot under the sea, Shuster said.
At the Frenchtown meeting a presentation by the Department of Natural Resources' Fish and Wildlife illustrated the problem.
Fourth generation fisherman David Berry said he's followed 20 years worth of fishing rule changes and, though he doesn't use nets, said he was attending to defend the rights of all Virgin Islands fishermen.
"You see the government is trying to turn each type of fisherman against each other. It's a play to get the fishermen to fight," Berry said.
The real problem with fishing, he said, are the commercial fishing boats that pass through the Caribbean from Asia and elsewhere, scooping thousands of tons of fish from the sea.
The proposed bans come on the heels of other recent fishing restrictions.
Last month authorities from the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council outlawed fishing at the Grammanik Bank, a shallow stretch of sea south of St. Thomas, from Feb. 1 to April 30.
The area is a spawning ground for dwindling numbers of several threatened species, including the Nassau grouper, a candidate for the endangered species list and federal protection, said Dean Plaskett, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
In March, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers conducted a two-week study of fish populations around St. John and Buck Island and found fish size and population to be dangerously low.
The NOAA team saw just one Nassau grouper, which scientists say was nearly fished out of existence in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming federally protected.
Over fishing and destruction of fish habitat, such as coral reefs, was to blame for a lack of size and population, the researchers said.
The federal council has begun drafting proposals that would prohibit fishing of the Nassau and Goliath grouper, and the queen conch which experts say have been over-harvested in parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands and neighboring Puerto Rico for 15 to 30 years. The proposed bans would allow fish to begin regenerating their populations.
The planned bans have drawn the ire of the territory's fishermen, who claim researchers are misreading data. The fishermen say over-fishing in Puerto Rican waters is falsely blamed on Virgin Islands fishermen.(See "V.I. Wins First Round in Fishing Fight".)
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