May 21, 2004 -After four hours of testimony from experts and interested parties and questions by V.I.senators, the Sustainable Farming and Fishing Act went nowhere Thursday. The Economic Development, Agriculture, and Consumer Protection Committee convened without quorum at 10 a.m. in the Legislative Conference room in Frederiksted, with Chairman Sen. Luther Renee and at-large Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd the only committee members in attendance at the start. Over the course of the next hour, Sens. Roosevelt David and Douglas Canton also arrived, Canton pleading a previous commitment. Vice Chair Sen. Lorraine Berry sent a letter to the committee, citing a family emergency as preventing her from attending. In attendance were Sens. Usie Richards and Louis Hill.
The committee heard testimony from government officials, scientists, farmers, and representatives of St. Croix farming organizations concerning the proposed Sustainable Farming and Fishing Act which, if passed, would mean a reorganization of the governmental agencies involved in the regulation and promotion of farming and fishing. Its goal is the revitalization of the agricultural sector of the local economy.
The bills provisions would marry traditional agriculture, aquaculture, mariculture and fishing under a revamped Department of Agriculture, introduce agriculture into the public school curriculum starting in kindergarten, create fishing advisory committee in both districts, create government seedling nurseries to aid in time of natural disaster, provide equipment both at-cost and by rental to farmers and fishermen, and give new conservation enforcement powers to the VIDOA.
"We need to develop a cohesive and long-term agricultural policy to guide agricultural development in the territory," Sen. Renee said in his opening remarks. He spoke of the importance of strengthening "agro-tourism linkages," as well as of a need for heightened food security in a time of world turmoil.
Witnesses quickly showed what they saw as weaknesses in the bill. Dr. James Rakocy, director of Agriculture Experiment Station at the University of the Virgin Islands, noted that many of the bills provisions would be strengthened by involving the university in them. He also noted that, at least in the case of aquaponics, the proposed program to have the government procure equipment would simply add a middleman, since the equipment is purchased directly from the manufacturer. He stressed the need for a stringent quarantine system, and questioned the wisdom of putting such a great emphasis on local agriculture, given the limited scale of any given farm. "I'm not sure how much you can get out of small plots of land," Rakocy said, noting that farms here seldom get much bigger than five acres. He also noted any attempt to promote agriculture runs the risk of burning out the land, which has no natural period of rest as the land does in temperate climates during winter. He also stressed that the Virgin Islands will not be competitive in the export market, at least for tilapia, since developing nations with substantially lower labor costs are increasingly turning toward aquaculture in general and tilapia in particular. When asked by Sen. David whether, if given all the resources agriculture could desire, the territory could become self-sustaining in food, Rakocy said flatly, "We will never raise all that we consume."
Commissioner Dean Plaskett, of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, also voiced concerns about much of the proposed legislation. He offered three general criticisms of the bill, before proceeding through the bill with page-by-page questions and criticisms. He stressed the numerous unfunded mandates included in the bill, finally telling the committee bluntly, "It is meaningless to have unfunded mandates." He also expressed concern at complications the bill introduces to the regulatory jurisdiction of agriculture in the territory, potentially making individuals subject to both Agriculture and DPNR. In particular, he argued that fishing needed to be regulated by a single entity, and that DPNR's Fish and Wildlife Service already existed to fulfill that purpose, adding that Fish and Wildlife is entirely federally funded, and that under the provisions of the bill it would be asked to perform services to the local government for which it did not have appropriate funding.
Plaskett was also troubled by some of the definitions included in the bill. "Produce," which the bill regulates in several ways, is not actually defined within the bill. The term "fishing" is used throughout, and Plaskett pointed out that this legally applies to not only commercial but also recreational and charter fishing, which may not be appropriate. Likewise, he felt that inadequate distinction was made between wild harvest fishing and aquaculture/mariculture. The latter, Plaskett explained, are rightly a form of agriculture and should be subsumed within that definition, therefore placing them within VIDOAs jurisdiction and leaving to DPNR fishing, which it already regulates under Title 12 of the V.I. Code.
Finally, Plaskett noted certain what he saw as specious claims of the bill, specifically its assertion that it will help exploit the untapped marine resources. "What are the untapped marine resources in the Virgin Islands?" Plaskett asked, citing that the National and Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration has recommended a 30 percent cut in fishing local waters, which yielded 1.4 million pounds of fish last year according to DPNR's estimates.
Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis echoed many of Plaskett's concerns, emphasizing that local fishermen should enjoy "one-stop shopping" with DPNR and asking that the legislature remove from Agriculture the small portion of the permitting process which is currently under Agriculture; it consists of a signature from the Commissioner which fishermen must then present to DPNR for completion of the permitting process. Lewis, however, felt that some of the institutional shuffling might be appropriate, saying "If you envisage a different structure to deal with different structures, then we are talking about something different."
Testimony was also offered by Percival Edwards, president of Farmers in Action; Kendal Peterson, vice president of St. Croix Farmers in Action; and Charles Bertin, a St. Croix farmer. Bertin reminded the committee of the need to consider drainage problems in any plan to expand VI agriculture. Peterson decried the inclusion of fishermen in the bill, declaring, "A fisherman is a hunter. He doesnt put anything in the sea he only takes out," and calling for the committee to "Develop a parity" for agriculture, "the ultimate thing for St. Croix." Edwards presented a slide show concerning some of the initiatives of Farmers in Action, particularly in the Bethlehem drainage in St. Croix. Apparently, the aim of the presentation was to impress upon senators the level of commitment of local farmers, and their need for funds to complete major infrastructure improvements.
During the question time, senators differed in their lines of inquiry. Sen. Liburd repeatedly brought up the question of local species that have become scarce in recent decades, including grouper, hind, and whelk, and hoped that something might be done in mariculture to boost wild stocks.
"What concerns me," offered Sen. Usie Richards, "is the continued attempt by we in the legislature to create additional layers of bureaucracy in a government bursting at the seams." Sen. Louis Hill echoed his sentiments, adding, "Based on the testimony there are many difficulties with this bill, but if we don't start dialogue and make this a priority it will just sit on the books. I hope in the final analysis that we can match with our resources to really implement improvements, to be successful."
Committee member Sen. Canton first used his qu
estion time after arriving late to plug his own Bill 25-200, which offers EDA benefits to St. Croix aquaculturists, before departing the meeting for better than an hour and a half. He returned after most of the testimony had been given and spoke for about seven minutes against his opponents in the senate who had "voted against investment in St. Croix."
Before declaring the bill held in committee, Sen. Renee took the time to frame the bill as a work in progress, and again invited public input. Further testimony will be taken at a later date in St. Thomas.
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