A spotless, renovated and updated fish market will open in around two weeks at Estate La Reine on St. Croix, Jean-Pierre Oriol, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, told the Senate Economic Development and Agriculture Committee on Monday.
The St. Croix market has been closed since 2007, although fishermen have continued to sell their catch near the adjacent farmers market.
The new facility has 18 stalls and 12 cleaning stations with sinks and running water. Security cameras and ice machines will be installed as soon as they are received, and plans are being made for fencing and janitorial services. There is a parking area and a 20,000 gallon holding tank for fish waste.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the newly refurbished facility was held on Feb. 24.
Oriol said the fishers using the area currently will be given the first right of refusal to rent the stalls at the facility, which cost a total of $800,000 over the years.
The St. Thomas fish market required some repairs but will reopen soon, and Oriol said there are plans for a fish market on St. John.
Senators asked about the farmers markets on both islands, particularly in Frederiksted, where people gather for talk and games instead of buying and selling produce. Several crimes have been committed at the location over the years.
“The issue with the vegetable market is enforcement,” Oriol said.
Senators said leaving lights on 24/7 at the market encourages trouble and recommended working with the police and investigating who pays the utility bills.
The Shan Hendricks Market in Christiansted has operated with a damaged bathroom for some time. It was the only available restroom in town while the National Park renovated its restrooms, and it was vandalized during that time. Agriculture Commissioner Positive T.A. Nelson said volunteers have been lined up to work on repairing the market’s facility.
The legislature session was focused on farmers and fishers and staff from both Agriculture and DPNR updated senators.
“We must come to grips with supporting local fishermen and farmers,” Sen. Kenneth Gittens, committee chairman, said.
Nelson said agriculture is “rebounding” and his goal is to make it “viable, sustainable and operable.” Educating and encouraging young people to farm is a primary objective, he said.
The department needs more equipment, such as tractors and dozers. Due to COVID-19, Agriculture machinery has not been repaired or maintained on a timely basis, he added. Employee morale is poor due to low pay and insufficient staffing, he said.
Sen. Frank Johnson chided the department for not taking advantage of the program to put prisoners at the Golden Grove Correctional Facility to work at government agencies.
Stafford Crossman, of the University of the Virgin Islands Extension Service, said constraints for agriculture include limited water, expensive land and marketing. He said a study reported that the average farmer’s age is 61. UVI has programs to educate those interested in learning the industry, noting that COVID-19 has inspired more people to start home gardens. He said he hopes some of those will turn to farming as a livelihood.
Senators criticized the Agriculture Department for not spending $300,000 from the Interior Department in three years and said the administration building was an “eyesore.”
Asked about hydroponic farming, Nelson responded that capital, infrastructure and utilities are detriments for investors. A “level of sophistication,” regarding monitoring and testing is necessary, he added.
Several senators said both departments need to read and adhere to the Virgin Islands Code to understand their duties and responsibilities.
“The code is not being read and not being enforced,” Gittens said.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw asked the status of the proposed $180,000 territorial agricultural plan. Nelson said a committee meets weekly with the UVI president to form the plan.
DPNR Commissioner Oriol said his mandate is to preserve the fishing stock and promote the industry. Among his goals is purging the commercial license list – only about half of the licenses are being used. He then wants to begin issuing recreational licenses.
The commissioner also complained about the lack of staff, when asked about preventing conch poaching on the west end of St. Croix. He said he didn’t have enough officers or boats and has tried to fill four vacancies for peace officers. It takes time to choose the right candidate to qualify for peace officer training, he said.
A brief conversation ensued when Gittens asked about the process for relocating stray animals. For large animals, a call to Agriculture’s veterinarian will get a response, according to Diana Callingwood, the Agriculture assistant commissioner. The animal shelters are charged with picking up stray dogs and cats but have not been provided funding for several years. Although funding has been approved for the last few years, it hasn’t reached the organizations. Last year, V.I. Property and Procurement denied funding at the last minute.
A list of animal control contracts was requested by Gittens. He was told that grant applications are being reviewed currently in an attempt to get funding to the nonprofit organizations.
“We have to do better by nonprofits and really support them in their endeavors to work on behalf of the people. So, if I have to run interference, let me know how I can assist. But we have to get this funding to them,” Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. said.
Senators attending the meeting were Gittens, Francis, Sarauw, Milton Potter, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett-Gregory, Alma Francis Heyliger, Javan James Sr. and Genevieve Whitaker.