Better protection for the Virgin Islands’ fisheries is one of the goals government highlighted during its first House of Assembly session of the year. Of particular concern is the over harvest of juvenile lobsters, though some environmental groups are launching new efforts to build lobster habitat structures, as pictured above on Jost Van Dyke. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The Virgin Islands includes more than 87,000 square kilometres of marine space, and government leaders are urging people who draw on its resources to take better care of it.

“As with all laws, there are instances of noncompliance,” Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture Minister Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said Feb. 20 at the House of Assembly. “We receive reports, pictures and videos regularly of illegal fishing from local and foreign vessels.”

He also noted the growth of marine tourism, including the charter yacht, cruise ship, sport fishing and diving sectors.

“Due to the vastness of this space, there is still much that we do not know or understand about our marine environment,” he said. “As such, our approach towards its use has always been one of careful use and conservation.”

Fisheries legislation was last comprehensively updated in the late 1990s, Dr. Wheatley said. Conservation measures implemented then included the regulation of seafood harvest as well as protections for fish habitat.

More recent laws, including the Virgin Islands Fisheries Regulations of 2003, provided protection for 14 fisheries areas in the territory, from Jost Van Dyke to Anegada, he explained. In these areas, anchoring is prohibited and fish harvesting is restricted.

Other key regulations include bag limits, fishing licence requirements, closed seasons and requirements to report what anglers catch, he explained.

“Reporting fish catch is important for helping us to understand our fish stocks,” he added. “We will continue to strictly enforce this requirement.”

The minister also offered a reminder that size limits are imposed for harvesting conch and lobster, and lobsters carrying eggs are also off limits.

These regulations, however, are violated frequently, he said. Common violations include extraction from protected areas and the capture of undersized lobsters and conch, according to the minister.

“We will take additional measures to ensure compliance,” Dr. Wheatley said.

These measures, he added, will include monitoring businesses.

“One area that we must look at closely is the issue of fishing on and around the reefs,” he continued. “Licensed commercial fishers who have vast traditional knowledge do not anchor or fish directly on reefs. However, we know that this type of fishing does occur.”

In particular, pulling anchors and fishing pots across the reefs cause significant long-lasting damage to the corals, Dr. Wheatley said. Since reefs are vital nurseries for marine life, such damage can cause a ripple effect on an entire underwater ecosystem.

“Damaged reefs take a very long time to recover,” he said. “Given the importance of our reefs to fishing and the health of our marine environment, all measures must be taken to protect our reefs.”

In the near future, Dr. Wheatley said, his ministry will focus on sustainable lobster and fish farming.

“Management of our fisheries is currently in a period of transition,” he said, citing the merger of aquatic and agricultural regulation under the ministry’s new Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. “We recognise that the health of our natural resources is imperative to the survival and rejuvenation of a sustainable agricultural and fishing industry.”

He acknowledged several management “shortcomings” as the new department gets up and running, but said he appreciated how most people who participate in the territory’s “blue economy” respect fisheries regulations.

“Particularly during this period of transition, we have been slow in responding to applications for licences at a pace that keeps up with the large volume we receive daily, particularly from the tourism sector,” Dr. Wheatley said. “We are working hard to improve our efficiency in this area.”

He hopes to automate the licence system in the future.

“We also have shortcomings on the side of our surveillance and enforcement, and although we work closely with Her Majesty’s Customs and police, we encourage persons to continue to report illegal activities,” he said.

The ministry is currently assessing conch and lobster stock in Anegada, particularly on Horseshoe Reef, which Dr. Wheatley said will inform future management practices. He added that such efforts will be especially important as the territory works toward becoming self-sufficient in food production.