I can see from the endless stream of opinion that has been appearing in the media that the pro net ban lobby in St. Croix has been trying to lay the ground work for this past Thursday's meeting with Governor deJongh where they tried to convince him that their opinions are more important than the livelihood of native Virgin Islands fishermen.
It's really quite striking, this obsession with the net fishery. I don't hear any of them addressing the real problem which, in fact, is the management of St. Croix's fisheries. For me that is the issue, how do we work with St. Croix's fishermen to rationalize the fishing industry with the ability of the resources to sustainably produce seafood for present and future generations of Virgin Islanders.
Currently St. Croix produces one and a half times the fish landed from the St. Thomas/St. John shelf from one sixth the fishing area. Landings have tripled since 1995 (see figure). The net fishery is a small part of that increase.
In my opinion, the only way to address this problem is to work with the fishermen to come up with solutions. Regulation simply is not going to work politically.
There are two net fisheries on St. Croix. One is an irresponsible effort where fishermen set nets on reefs, leave the water and come back later to harvest the catch and discard the by catch. That fishery needs to end.
The other fishery involves nine fishermen who set a net trap and herd the fish into the nets. These fishermen came up with a plan where they would cut their landings by over 30%, initiate a closed season, and end the fishery over the next few years as they left it and could not transfer their licenses. This was the start of working with the fishermen to manage the resources. I had hoped to build on that model to get the other fisheries on board.
Enforcing the net ban is not going to solve the "problem" that the pro-ban people are presenting. Last year, St. Croix's scuba fishermen made over 14,000 trips, (over 100,000 dives). If the ban is put in place, I look for those numbers to increase with little or no decrease in the landings of parrot fish and surgeon fish.
The ban is not the answer, management of the resources is. Management is not going to come about from a small minority of well-organized individuals who are blinded to the larger issues. We heard at the Legislature last week that the monument closure probably had its origins when the "Friends of the Park" chose to ignore local priorities and sovereignty and went directly to the Federal agencies. This ban is another case where a small group of individuals has manipulated the process and polarized an issue beyond the point where rational planning for management can take place. Management of the resources must serve the long term interests of the People of the Virgin Islands and the advocates of the ban represent a very small minority of those people.
Governor deJongh, do the right thing and stand up for the interests of the majority and opt for a path of resource management!
David A. Olsen, Ph.D.
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