I am a small business owner on St. Croix who spends an average of $80,000 per year marketing St. Croix as a scuba diving destination. In July, my business will be celebrating its 10th anniversary. I have been living and diving on St. Croix for over 22 years. In those 22 years, and especially in the past 5, I have seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of sea life, especially fish along the reefs surrounding our island. This decrease is primarily due to the use of gill nets by 9 fishermen on St. Croix.
A gill net ban was signed into law by our previous Governor, Charles Turnbull. I applaud the Department of Planning and Natural Resources on the decision to begin enforcing that ban and hope that our current Governor, John deJongh, does not seek to overturn the law. Gill netting is also against federal law. There are very good reasons why. The decline in the fish population surrounding St. Croix is detrimental in many ways. Here are two major ones:
St. Croix is becoming well known as a diving destination through our marketing efforts, and those of the Department of Tourism. Divers will come to St. Croix, stay in hotels, rent cars, eat in restaurants, take tours, shop, and go scuba diving, all of which are great for the economy of the island and bring taxes into the government coffers. If divers get here and find that there are no fish left, word will spread quickly, the marketing efforts will have been futile, and a lot of income to residents and the government will be lost.
Certain species of fish, primarily Parrot Fish, survive by eating the algae that grows on coral reefs. Without those fish, the algae takes over and kills the reef. We are seeing that happening at an alarming rate. A dead reef doesn't attract tourists. A dead reef will collapse and fail to continue to protect Christiansted Harbor. The former Commissioner of Fish and Wildlife, Dr. Olsen, at a meeting of the Fisheries Advisory Council, stated that according to his data, St. Croix was being "underfished". Not only is that not a word, I can't imagine how anyplace on earth is being underfished. The data he refers to is the data collected by the fishermen themselves and reported once a year when they apply for their $5 commercial fishing license. This data, which includes "bi-catch" (the fish that are caught and killed in the nets but not sold or eaten), is flawed. There are no actual daily records being kept. The data is "created" just prior to the yearly renewal to satisfy the requirement.
Even if data was being recorded daily, do you think these nine fishermen would be honestly reporting the tremendous amount of bi-catch being destroyed. This bi-catch runs the gamut of the food chain from lobster and crabs to shark, dolphins, and endangered turtles. Even Dr. Olsen agreed that the data was flawed but he still insisted on relying on that data to support his opinion of "underfishing".
It is almost too late. Entire species and breeding stocks of fish have already been depleted. St. Croix is so far away from other islands that more fish won't just migrate to us. I, my family, and our 20 employees are begging Governor deJongh to allow the enforcement of the total ban on gill net fishing around St. Croix. 9 fishermen should not be allowed to completely deplete highly valuable natural resources of all Virgin Islanders.
Capt. Ed Buckley
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