The Nature Conservancy has enlisted several St. Croix restaurants, though the Reef Responsible Sustainable Seafood program, to promote healthy reefs and the commercial fishing industry by serving certain locally harvested fish at certain times of the year.
In March, Kemit-Amon Lewis, The Nature Conservancy’s coral conservation manager, held two workshops for restaurant chefs, owners and staff to explain how to purchase, prepare and serve seafood, while supporting local fishers and reviving the reef system around the island.
Lewis talked about issues that adversely affect the reefs including pollution, careless boating and storms. The reefs provide food and shelter for many species that, in return, eat the algae from the coral reefs, he said. Some fish populations have dwindled over the years due to the sick reefs surrounding St. Croix.
“If we control manmade stressors, we can make reefs better able to withstand climate impacts that we have less control over,” Lewis explained.
At the workshop, Lewis introduced a “reefsponsible list” to the restaurateurs indicating which fish were always a good choice to prepare and sell to diners, because they mature quickly, reproduce rapidly and their populations are not endangered. The “good choice” fish are dolphin fish, lionfish, tuna, tilapia and wahoo.
The second list of “go slow” fish have seasonal closures and size limits to allow the species to increase. Groupers, grunts, jacks, parrotfish, queen conch, snappers, surgeonfish, spiny lobster, swordfish, triggerfish and whelk should only be served when they meet legal size and season requirements.
Lewis said most of the chefs were aware of many of the regulations including size limits for various fish, lobster and conch.
The third list of endangered and threatened fish that are protected by local and federal laws and should never be harvested includes Goliath and Nassau groupers, and blue, midnight and rainbow parrotfish. Lewis has been diving for decades in the area and said he has never seen any of those fish.
Lewis said the acceptable and not acceptable fish list was based on current local and national regulations and will be updated as needed. The agencies that created the guidelines included the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the University of the Virgin Islands Marine Science Center, the Caribbean Fish Management Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
One of the newest additions to the “good choice” list, lionfish, was prepared and served by Lewis at the workshop. He wanted those who hadn’t already tried it to sample the rich, mild flavor.
Recent research at UVI and elsewhere indicates that lionfish can carry ciguatera fish poisoning. The percentage is very small, Lewis said, and most fishermen know which areas are safe. “Everyone,” he said, knows not to fish the reefs on the south side of St. Croix, around Sandy Point and north to the Frederiksted pier.
“Lionfish have no more ciguatera than snapper and far less than barracuda,” he concluded.
In fact Lewis said, residents and visitors to Jamaica, the Bahamas and other areas, where fisheries have collapsed, are now serving and eating more lionfish.
After the workshop, the restaurateurs were given a seasonal fishing chart poster and a book with information about many local species and why they are included or excluded from the list of acceptable fish. Lewis said these tools will help staff learn and explain seafood sustainability to customers.
Each participating restaurant received a plaque certifying their signed “commitment towards a sustainable commercial seafood industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
The pledge includes the promise to focus on serving seafood on the “good choices” list, to adhere to local regulations, and to learn and teach more about sustainable reefs and harvesting.
The restaurants were also provided a list of websites to help them determine the freshness and quality of fish ordered from outside the territory, such as www.seafoodwatch.org.
The first restaurants to participate and receive certification were Dashi, Tutto Bene, Cafe Christine, The Terrace, Eat @ Cane Bay, Twin City Coffee House, The Mermaid, Savant and Empress Fresh Foods.
Lewis said other restaurants have requested the workshop and he plans to hold more sessions in conjunction with Taste of St. Croix. Additionally, this summer, workshops will be scheduled for commercial fishers. Anyone interested should contact him at The Nature Conservancy at 340-718-5575 or by email to email@example.com.
The idea for the Reef Responsible program began five years ago with stakeholders from UVI, TNC, the St. Croix Environmental Association and V.I. Fish and Wildlife. They wanted to restore coral, make the reefs more resilience and grow the fisheries, Lewis said. Eventually, they hope to expand the program to St. Thomas and St. John.