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Fish and Wildlife Director Resigns Over Gillnet Ban

March 18, 2008 — David Olsen, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, resigned effective March 31 to protest the territory's ban on gillnet fishing.
Planning Commissioner Robert Mathes made the decision to enforce the ban. The department would not comment on Olsen's resignation, Planning spokesman Jamal Nielsen said.
Olsen said the enforcement was the result of pressure from people he called "continental enviros and dive tours."
"They maneuvered the Fishery Advisory Committee," Olsen said.
Michelle Pugh, who owns Dive Experience on St. Croix and is a member of Planning's Fishery Advisory Committee, said she found it "very irritating" that someone from Fish and Wildlife would favor a fishing method that ruins the territory's resources.
Fishermen use gillnets to catch parrot fish which, as herbivores, keep the reefs clean of algae, Pugh said. Additionally, she said, the fishermen catch other fish in their nets, which they throw away. Pugh said the herbivores are essential to restore dying reefs.
"Without herbivores the reefs aren't going to come back," she said.
St. Croix sits on a shelf, which means that fish aren't swimming to the island from other areas to replenish the stocks, Pugh said: "When they're gone, they're gone."
When gillnet fishermen dive down to anchor the gillnets, they often tie them to live coral, she said. Each gillnet is the size of about five football fields, she said.
The ban on gillnet fishing was passed in 2006, but Planning's enforcement officers looked the other way once Olsen became Fish and Wildlife director near the start of Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s term, Pugh asserted.
Fish and Wildlife got a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant worth "thousands of dollars" to buy back the gillnets from the fishermen, but the money has yet to be disbursed to the nine fishermen who gillnet fish on St. Croix, Pugh said. St. Thomas fishermen do not use gillnets, she said.
A gillnet runs about $1,000 for 400 feet of net, said fisherman Gerson Martinez of St. Croix. He said it's "bad" that Olsen will no longer be at the helm of Fish and Wildlife, and a sign that the government is too focused on non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
"The government is not listening to the fishermen," he said. "They're just listening to the NGOs."
Although only nine people on St. Croix use gillnets to fish, they hire helpers, Olsen said. He put the total number of gillnet fishery workers at abut 50.
"And they sell to probably 50 restaurants," he said.
The problem would take care of itself in five years, because the gillnet fishermen are getting older, Olsen said. The permits they hold to use gillnets cannot be transferred, he said.
Mathes, in an email to Olsen obtained by the Source, wrote that when he agreed not to enforce the gillnet ban, it was with the understanding that some legal mechanism would be found either to nullify or amend the existing regulation.
"Unfortunately, this has not happened, and I simply cannot continue to be personally exposed and liable for not enforcing the ban," Mathes wrote.
He told Olsen not to attend a meeting Wednesday of the Fishery Advisory Committee. The Fishery Advisory Committees on both islands have approved a management plan, but it has not been implemented, Olsen said.
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March 18, 2008 -- David Olsen, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, resigned effective March 31 to protest the territory's ban on gillnet fishing.
Planning Commissioner Robert Mathes made the decision to enforce the ban. The department would not comment on Olsen's resignation, Planning spokesman Jamal Nielsen said.
Olsen said the enforcement was the result of pressure from people he called "continental enviros and dive tours."
"They maneuvered the Fishery Advisory Committee," Olsen said.
Michelle Pugh, who owns Dive Experience on St. Croix and is a member of Planning's Fishery Advisory Committee, said she found it "very irritating" that someone from Fish and Wildlife would favor a fishing method that ruins the territory's resources.
Fishermen use gillnets to catch parrot fish which, as herbivores, keep the reefs clean of algae, Pugh said. Additionally, she said, the fishermen catch other fish in their nets, which they throw away. Pugh said the herbivores are essential to restore dying reefs.
"Without herbivores the reefs aren't going to come back," she said.
St. Croix sits on a shelf, which means that fish aren't swimming to the island from other areas to replenish the stocks, Pugh said: "When they're gone, they're gone."
When gillnet fishermen dive down to anchor the gillnets, they often tie them to live coral, she said. Each gillnet is the size of about five football fields, she said.
The ban on gillnet fishing was passed in 2006, but Planning's enforcement officers looked the other way once Olsen became Fish and Wildlife director near the start of Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s term, Pugh asserted.
Fish and Wildlife got a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant worth "thousands of dollars" to buy back the gillnets from the fishermen, but the money has yet to be disbursed to the nine fishermen who gillnet fish on St. Croix, Pugh said. St. Thomas fishermen do not use gillnets, she said.
A gillnet runs about $1,000 for 400 feet of net, said fisherman Gerson Martinez of St. Croix. He said it's "bad" that Olsen will no longer be at the helm of Fish and Wildlife, and a sign that the government is too focused on non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
"The government is not listening to the fishermen," he said. "They're just listening to the NGOs."
Although only nine people on St. Croix use gillnets to fish, they hire helpers, Olsen said. He put the total number of gillnet fishery workers at abut 50.
"And they sell to probably 50 restaurants," he said.
The problem would take care of itself in five years, because the gillnet fishermen are getting older, Olsen said. The permits they hold to use gillnets cannot be transferred, he said.
Mathes, in an email to Olsen obtained by the Source, wrote that when he agreed not to enforce the gillnet ban, it was with the understanding that some legal mechanism would be found either to nullify or amend the existing regulation.
"Unfortunately, this has not happened, and I simply cannot continue to be personally exposed and liable for not enforcing the ban," Mathes wrote.
He told Olsen not to attend a meeting Wednesday of the Fishery Advisory Committee. The Fishery Advisory Committees on both islands have approved a management plan, but it has not been implemented, Olsen said.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.