From: Mat Probasco, Associated Press Writer
Published October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Fishermen Brainstorm Strategies to Defeat Proposed Restrictions in U.S. Virgin Islands

CHARLOTTE AMALIE, U.S. Virgin Islands-About 100 fishermen met Wednesday to brainstorm strategies to defeat proposals that would ban the fishing of a handful of popular species.

The Caribbean Fishery Management Council has begun drafting proposals that would prohibit fishing of the Nassau and Goliath grouper, and the queen conch _ which experts say have been over harvested _ in parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for 15 to 30 years so the animals can regenerate their populations.

Once completed, the proposals will be sent to the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., where officials will decide whether to modify the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The federal law that says regional councils must describe and identify essential fish habitat and minimize effects on the habitat caused by fishing.

"They are killing us," said William Farrell, 57, who has been fishing around the U.S. Virgin Islands for 42 years. "If they close off the territory there is no way we can get those big fish, and this is what we do for a living."

Local government officials attended the meeting, but conservationists pushing the changes were not invited.

The proposals come after a handful of studies concluded that stricter restrictions on fishing was the only way to protect species close to extinction.

In March, researchers from the University of the Virgin Islands studied populations of Nassau grouper, a fish once common to the area that is now a candidate for the federal endangered species list.

They concluded that the fish had been so depleted that many of those remaining couldn't find their way back to native spawning grounds, where they must go to procreate.

"Unless the area is closed during the spawning season, the fish will not repopulate," said Rick Nemeth, director of the Center for Marine and Environmental Studies at the university.

Nemeth said just a ban on specific fish may not be effective because fishermen could simply fillet their catch at sea, making the fish type difficult to discern.

Fishermen at the meeting, however, argued there were enough restrictions on fishing. They pointed to the 1,900 acres (768.9 hectares) national monument around Buck Island north of St. Croix, where no fishing is allowed.

Fishermen planned further meetings to draft their own proposals to present to government officials.

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