The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) has partnered with federal and local agencies recently in an effort to protect mutton snapper and sea turtles transiting the closed fishing area around St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.
During Operation Slow Down, OLE and other law enforcement personnel were stationed in waters around St. Croix that are closed to fishing in order to allow mutton snapper to spawn. Leatherback sea turtles also pass through these areas on their way to nest in the nearby Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, the largest nesting beach in the United States and U.S. territories.
Agents and officers enforced the closed fishing area by boarding boats suspected of illegally fishing. Vessels are allowed to transit areas closed to fishing, however, so enforcement personnel also advised passing vessels to slow down. While there is no specific speed limit in this area, boats attempting to fish in the closed area not only disturb the fish spawning but also risk hitting the sea turtles, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Harassing or harming these turtles carries a fine ranging from $1,000 to $10,500 for the first offense.
The waters around St. Croix are closed to fishing from March 1 through June 30 each year. Fishing in closed areas is governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and those charged with doing so during the closed period face possible fines ranging from $500 to $50,000 and/or fishing permit sanctions up to 45 days.
“We are planning on conducting this type of operation each year,” said Special Agent Ken Henline of OLE’s Southeast Division.
Operation Slow Down was a partnership of OLE, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Park Service and the St. Croix Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
The mission of NOAA OLE is to ensure compliance with the laws and regulations enacted to conserve and protect our nation’s marine resources. To report a suspected violation, contact the NOAA OLE national hotline at 1-800-853-1964.