May 23, 2008 — The Department of Planning and Natural Resources announced Friday it will begin strictly enforcing the prohibition on gill and trammel nets for reef fish to reduce overfishing of the territory's waters.
The Fisheries Advisory Committees in St. Croix and St. Thomas/St. John districts recommended the ban in 2004, citing high volumes of undesirable and undersized reef fish being caught and discarded, accidental catching of endangered sea turtles, habitat damage and declining parrotfish abundance.
In recent years some fishermen on St. Croix have begun the new practice of having scuba divers hand-place gill and trammel nets on the sea floor near the reef, catching every fish that passes to and from the reef over the course of the day. Gill nets have a mesh with openings of several inches, catching fish by their gills. Trammel nets hang vertically and have a fine mesh sandwiched between two coarser layers.
The method on St. Croix has nets applied by hand by a diver. Several 300-foot sections are sewn together, averaging 1,115 feet in length. About 83 percent of what they catch is parrotfish as they migrate during the day. The various species of parrotfish are primarily consumed by residents rather than by tourists.
Proponents of the ban say the nets are too effective; a fishing equivalent to clear-cutting a forest. Large piles of dead fish left by net-fishers have been found on beaches and at dump sites.
Regulations banning the use of gill and trammel nets were signed by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in 2006. Seasonal closures during peak spawning periods for some species, a prohibition on the harvest of Nassau grouper, and a ban on filleting fish at sea were also imposed at that time.
The St. Thomas Fishermans Association strongly opposes the ban. David Olsen, staff scientist for the STFA, resigned as the director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department in March 31 to protest the ban. Olsen says the ban has no scientific basis and is the result of pressure from "continental enviros and dive tours." (See: "Fish and Wildlife Director Resigns Over Gillnet Ban.")
According to DPNR's announcement Friday, federal money to buy back nets will be available to those fishermen who meet the buy-back criteria established by the Fisheries Advisory Committees.
"Because our fishable waters and resources are more limited than other areas, we must be ever vigilant to ensure that these resources are available for Virgin Islanders both now and in the future, DPNR Commissioner Robert Mathes said in Friday's release. The Government of the Virgin Islands, working in partnership with the Caribbean Fishery Management Council and NOAAs National Marine Fisheries Service to achieve sustainable management of marine resources in the U.S. Caribbean, has agreed to take proactive steps to reduce fishing mortality for several species and species groups identified as being at risk of overfishing."
Gov. John deJongh Jr. played a part as well.
I met with representatives of those fishermen who would be negatively impacted by the ban but felt that the long-term impact on the overall fishing resources required that we move forward with the ban," deJongh said in the statement from DPNR.
For more information, please contact Carlos Farchette, Director, Division of Environmental Enforcement, at (340) 773-5774.
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