For as surprised as I was in hearing about the resignation of Dr. David Olsen from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, I am even more surprised to hear vocal support for a man who has built a reputation as a man who disregards the simple notions of "sustainable fisheries". I applaud Mr. Julian Magras and the St. Thomas Fishermen Association for their stated goals of working in a sustainable fishery. To that end, fishermen on St. Thomas, Mr. Magras among them if I am to remember correctly, have been determining the efficacy of fish trap modifications that prevent trapping undersized fish (St. Thomas Source, 2/18/08). The capture of undersized fish is a major problem in establishing a sustainable fishery. Furthermore, I applaud Mr. Gerson Martinez's candor in describing his experiences as a Crucian fisherman (St. Croix Source, 1/26/08). The life and industry of Crucian fishermen should be celebrated and protected as best as possible, and this means protecting both their livelihood and the natural resources that they depend on. This is why I am happy to see Dr. Olsen is resigning over his supportive views on gillnetting in St. Croix.
The truth of the matter, as has been discussed in many public forums over the past several months, is that gillnets, as they are currently designed and deployed, are horribly indiscriminate and are the very definition of unsustainable. They catch undersized fish, migrating fish with no market value, sea turtles, and other marine life. Their anchors and securing lines do serious damage to the coral reefs that are already suffering from a myriad of human and natural disturbances. Furthermore, the available data is that of an estimated 200 full-time fishermen on St. Croix (plus many more employed in the fishery), 9 fishermen employ gillnets, yet their catch rates (as well as by-catch rates) are significantly disproportionate to other methods. As such, though respected, experienced and intelligent fishermen like Mr. Magras and Martinez may publicly support their use, they know that 1) they are illegal in St. Croix yet continue to be used in what amounts to a legally tenuous, essentially unsupervised and potentially reckless manner, 2) an effort to buy-out gillnets from the remaining fishermen employing that gear was never fully attempted despite a federal grant won specifically for that task, and 3) they pass along negative impacts not only to the environment and other individuals like Ms. Michelle Pugh, who runs a dive business, but more critically, to other fishermen and their helpers. Fishermen who catch their fish lawfully and, by doing so, are providing the necessary groundswell of support for a sustainable fishery.
Yet Dr. Olsen favors the few over the many, openly disregarding the fact that illegal gillnetting is going on and disguising the issues facing St. Croix's fisheries as a fight between the honorable, working-class fishing community and the selfish, overly-critical and self-important "enviro". It is not. The truth is that the territorial agency charged with managing marine resources is being led by a man who arrogantly supports law-breaking over truly addressing the issues that come with designing a working management plan for a sustainable fishery. He let practices continue that have shown to be a major source of recruitment overfishing and negligent damage to non-targeted marine resources like coral and sea turtles. He'd rather not sit down with all interested parties and hammer out a temporary agreement while his office examines the positive and negative impacts of gillnets. And most abusively to his charge as Director of Fish and Wildlife, he routinely prefers political manipulations over scientific evidence.
His department's stated goal is to provide "scientific advice to the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources on the condition of the wildlife, fisheries and marine resources of the US Virgin Islands. DFW also advises the Commissioner of DPNR on the best strategies to sustain these resources for all citizens of the US Virgin Islands." In supporting gillnetting, he argues that there is no evidence that there is overfishing in the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas Source, 2/16/07), yet wholly scientific studies that do not rely on volunteered catch information from fishermen or fish counts from recreational or untrained divers, suggests otherwise. A simple search on Google Scholar will lead you to a study conducted in St. John and St. Croix that concludes: "fishing [is] the causative agent, or, at least, a major contributing factor" to "declines in abundance" of important reef species (see: Rogers and Beets 2001; Degradation of marine ecosystems and decline of fishery resources in marine protected areas in the US Virgin Islands, Environmental Conservation 28(4): 312-322). It is clear that he has failed the people of the Virgin Islands and has instead chosen to maintain his previous career as a vociferous and combative spokesman for the commercial fishing industry and their interests.
Dr. Olsen has done a disservice to the working fishermen, and their families, of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. Mr. Magras is right is worrying about large-scale fishery closures. But allowing illegal gillnetting to continue while pretending it has no negative impacts only hastens the threat of closures. Fishermen deserve better than Dr. Olsen. So, to Dr. Olsen, I say, "Good Riddance. And Good Day." To Commissioner Mathes, I say, "I am happy to see the strength of your convictions." And to Mr. Magras, Mr. Martinez, Ms. Pugh, and all other Virgin Islanders who live, work, and love our inestimable marine resources, I say, "We can do better together than we can apart." Let us work to protect our fish and our fishermen. We cannot lose one without losing the other. And I, for one, can't stand the idea of losing either.
Christiansted, St. Croix
Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to email@example.com.