U.S. Virgin Islands fishermen aired their grievances at a public meeting held by the St. Thomas/St. John Fisherman’s Association on Monday, where they were told the $10.7 million received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to rebuild the territory’s fishing industry is still not ready to be disbursed to individual fishermen.
Fisherman’s Association Chairman Julian Magras said promises made to the association have not been followed through.
“To say that we have a concrete update on where the money is, we do not,” Magras said. “The money, at the last FAC meeting that we had, it was told to us that the process would have started the first week of December. But here it is, we are coming into the first week of December and the office space has not been identified, the five employees have not been hired, which includes an administrator, and software has not been purchased. So, the money has just been sitting in the bank since Aug. 1 and we are not moving anywhere.”
Nicole Angeli, the acting director/chief for DPNR’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, was invited to attend the meeting but was unable. When asked for comment she said, “The process for distribution will have multiple components as required for the program’s federal grant approval, which occurred in August. The entire process required approval from the Department of Commerce’s DRA financial team, including a site visit in May, and DPNR shoulders the responsibility for reporting and tracking all of the money. It took many more months for the grant’s final review by GVI and it was not available until this past month.”
Angeli added that it was still the department’s intention to provide a release date in the beginning of December for when fishermen could start to file applications to be processed for the distributing of the relief funds.
“We anticipate releasing a rollout on the entire program in the next week,” Angeli said. “The staffing and financial forms are being finalized so that we can open the application periods for the fishing community shortly. There was never a firm date released, as many of the processes do not occur within DPNR, but rather in collaboration with other departments. When pressed for a date, I had expressed hope in releasing information for the program start in December,” Angeli said.
But Magras said he and the fishermen are frustrated and have needed these funds since the time they were requested, more than two years ago, on Oct. 6, 2017.
The government entities “don’t care about the fishers” and “we are tired of reaching out for answers that don’t come and no one is doing anything to help us.”
With his head hung low Magras begrudgingly told the fishermen, “I just don’t have an answer for you of when you will all get paid.”
Several fishermen gave first account experiences of what they were going through without having access to the relief funds, which would allow for vessel repairs and the purchase of equipment such as traps, which many of the local fishermen have historically used and continue to use today.
Local fisherman Roy Otway sounded forlorn when he said, “In the meantime we are all suffering. We have no place to put our boats to repair them from hurricane damage. Everyday, Property and Procurement is putting stickers on my boat to try to throw it to the dump. What am I supposed to do? I am forced to repair my boat with scraps I find on the side of the roads … I can’t repair it in the marinas where they charge $1,000 a week. They put a sticker on my boat personally and it’s pissing me off.”
Though the money has been received and, according to DPNR’s website, the “spend plan was developed by DFW in collaboration with NOAA and approved on August 1, 2019,” fishermen are frantic at the thought of the funding taking any longer.
Magras said he didn’t understand how some of the money, $1.3 million, had already been allocated to procure office space and staffing to ensure fishermen’s applications would be processed in a timely fashion, but he and the fishing community had yet to be informed of when the process can be started.
Angeli clarified this with the Source.
“As to your question related to expenditure, no grant monies have been used to-date as we are still preparing the processes,” she said. The DPNR website does reference the monetary difference.
“Staff will be hired to review applications for distributing $9.4 million of direct financial assistance to commercial fishers, their helpers, charters and fishing-dependent businesses,” the website says.
Many of the fishermen, including Magras, mentioned the lack of transparency from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, with Magras saying DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol and other pertinent figures have ignored his calls and requests for information.
“DPNR has us running around and around in a circle and gives no answers,” Magras said.
But when the Source reached out to DPNR’s Media Relations Coordinator Jamal Nielson, he disputed the idea that the department is not being transparent.
“The fishing community has been kept abreast regarding this for some time now,” Nielson said. “The division’s director has made presentations at FAC meetings in the past, the commissioner has testified before the Legislature regarding the program, and all the information is available on our website and Facebook page,” Nielson said.
He provided no further information or comment.
Magras said he understood that things don’t happen overnight, but this is a problem that needs to be solved and is important to every fisherman in the territory.