Commercial fishermen were puzzled and disgusted with the selective prosecution by Planning and Natural Resources' enforcement division, led by Lucia Roberts, Radio One reported Thursday.
A 31-year-old commercial fisherman was led in handcuffs to DPNR enforcement headquarters and charged for a single undersize lobster this week, according to the report.
However, when six persons were apprehended Wednesday with more than 1,000 whelks taken from the marine sanctuary in Benner Bay, they were not charged. Virgin Islands law and marine regulations prohibit possession or removal of any marine life from the waters of the sanctuary.
Roberts, director of enforcement for DPNR, told St. Thomas Source on Friday that the decision was based on differences in education.
The fisherman with the lobster was a commercial fisherman who has been picked up before for the same offense, Roberts said.
"He knows the rules and he also had measuring equipment on board," she said. "We try to educate first toward compliance. Once we've done that, we then go through with arrest."
The people picked up in the back lagoon area were recreational fishermen and didn't know the rules, Roberts said. And the 1,000 whelks had not been injured and were returned to the lagoon.
The warning and release of the poachers was disconcerting, however, to residents and businesses in the Benner Bay area. Some residents say they have reported poaching on several occasions to DPNR, with little if any action from enforcement officers. In fact, one resident complained to St. Thomas Source that the only results from reports of poaching were death threats from the poachers.
An employee of a business in the lagoon, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said, "We've had so many bad experiences just trying to tell people the rules, we don't even talk to them anymore. We've all been threatened (by the poachers}."
Roberts claimed the lagoon area is patroled "at least five days a week."
Not so, said a lagoon resident who has repeatedly called the police and DPNR about illegal poaching and running motorized vessels, which is also prohibited, in the sanctuary.
"Every day there are people in the back of the lagoon fishing, conching and boating with engines," this person said. "Every once in a while I see them (DPNR) give tickets to boaters who live on their vessels in the lagoon. But otherwise I never see them."
Roberts and the DPNR Enforcement Division have just emerged from a melee with boaters in St. John. In September Roberts had opened and closed safe hurricane havens for live-aboard boaters, forcing them to move their homes in and out of protected areas. The boat owners claimed Roberts was creating unnecessary hardship for people who live and often work on their vessels.