STATUS OF THE REEFS
REEF FISH RESOURCES
Department of Planning and Natural Resources
Division of Fish and Wildlife
The coral reef ecosystems of the insular shelf waters of the United States Virgin Islands
provide habitat, food and shelter for a great diversity of reef fish species. Of some 350
species of shallow water reef fish identified in the Caribbean, about 180 are landed and
used in quantity throughout the region and collectively comprise the most important
fishery in the islands (Caribbean Fishery Management Council, 1985). The fisheries in
the U.S. Caribbean are multi-species, multi-gear, artisanal in nature and principally coral
reef-based (Caribbean Fishery Management Council, 2003). The U.S. Caribbean
fisheries are closely linked to fisheries in the wider Caribbean region. The species
targeted in the U.S. waters are also available in waters of adjacent island countries and
recruitment of these species may be derived from areas distant from the area of the
The assemblage of reef fish species is utilized by approximately 380 registered
commercial fishers in the U.S. Virgin Islands (Tobias et. al., 2000). The commercial
fishing fleet consists primarily of small-sized, open, wood or fiberglass fishing boats,
which average 20-26 feet in length. Larger vessels are used for trap-based fisheries due
to space requirements for traps and machinery (Caribbean Fishery Management Council,
2003). There are four major gear types in the commercial fishery, with multiple methods
currently in use for some gears (Tobias et. al., 2000). The gear types include traps, line
fishing, nets and diving. Most fishing gear is used to harvest reef fish species. Fish traps
are the most popular gear type used (Tobias, 1997). Fish traps, known locally as pots, are
generally constructed of wire mesh with a rigid wooden or metal frame. Depending on
bottom conditions, traps may be set in strings, multiple traps connected by a single line,
or singly. The trap strings or individual traps may or may not be buoyed. Regulations
for fish trap mesh size are different for St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix districts. Fish
trap mesh size is 2-inch square or hexagonal for St. Thomas/St. John and 11/2-inch
square or hexagonal for St. Croix. Line fishing is the second most popular fishing
method employed and the only gear used to harvest pelagic fishes. Fishers use handlines,
rod and reels and electric or hydraulic reels, to troll near the surface for coastal pelagic
and pelagic fishes and to bottom fish for shallow water reef fish species and deepwater
snappers and groupers. Methods for harvest with monofilament nets vary the most. Nets
are used as purse seines, beach seines, gill nets and trammel nets. Umbrella nets and cast
nets are typically used to harvest baitfish. Scuba gear and free-diving are also used to
spear fish and harvest conch, lobster and whelk. Due to the narrow island shelf, it is
common for fishers to harvest both reef and pelagic fishes during a single daily trip. The
majority of the offshore fisheries are composed of six species from the Scombridae (tuna-
mackerel) family and one specie from the Coryphaenidae (dolphin fish) family. Two
longline vessels harvest additional pelagic species.
Recreational fishers are not required to have a license or permit in the U.S. Virgin
Islands. As a result, accurate numbers of individuals participating in the fishery are not
available. The number of boat-based recreational fishers is estimated at 2,509, based on a
telephone survey conducted in 2000 (Eastern Caribbean Center, 2002). The number of
boat-based and shore-based fishers was estimated to be around 11,000 recreational
fishers, about 9.2% of the population (Mateo, 1999; Eastern Caribbean Center, 2002).
Trolling was reported as the most common boat-based fishing method (59.7%), followed
by bottom fishing (22.7%). Jennings (1992) reported that bottom fishing (70%) was
more common than trolling (20%) in 1986. Approximately half of the fishing occurs in
territorial waters, less than three miles from shore (Eastern Caribbean Center, 2002). The
most preferred fish family was snapper, followed by dolphin and tuna. Of 563
recreational shoreline anglers interviewed in the U.S. Virgin Islands between 1995 and
1998, fishers most frequently reported catch of French grunts, jacks and yellowtail
snappers (Mateo, 2000).
The Government of the Virgin Islands has jurisdiction over the marine resources in
territorial waters, which extends from the shoreline seaward three miles. Fisheries
regulations were first promulgated in Title 11 and 12 of the Virgin Islands Code in 1972.
In the Virgin Islands Code, power was bestowed on the Commissioner of the Department
of Planning and Natural Resources to enact fisheries management regulations for the
conservation and protection of the resources. Local fisheries advisory committees
(FACs), established in the Virgin Islands Code, have the responsibility to make
management recommendations to the Commissioners of the Department of Agriculture
and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for conservation of the resources.
Under the Magnusen-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, authority was
granted to regional councils to manage fisheries resources in federal waters. This is
accomplished through the development of fisheries management plans. The Caribbean
Fishery Management Council is responsible for the management of the fisheries
resources in federal waters (Exclusive Economic Zone) around Puerto Rico and the
Virgin Islands, which extend from the commonwealth and territorial boundaries,
respectively, to 200 miles offshore. The Shallow Water Reef Fish Management Plan
(Caribbean Fishery Management Council, 1985) includes 64 of the most commonly
landed species from 14 families, which compose the bulk of the catch from Puerto Rico
and the U.S. Virgin Islands, into one management unit. This management unit was
expanded to include deep water snappers and groupers, aquarium trade species, a
prohibition on the harvest of Goliath grouper, additional spawning area closures and gear
restrictions (Caribbean Fishery Management Council, 1993). A goal of territorial and
federal fisheries management is to have compatible fisheries regulations, which ease the
burden of enforcement.
Status of the Resources
Fishers in the U.S. Virgin Islands have targeted seasonal spawning aggregations of large
grouper and snapper species since the 1960's. The continuous and unregulated fishing
pressure during spawning periods has resulted in the demise of large, piscivorous,
territorial species like Nassau grouper, yellowfin grouper, tiger grouper and Goliath
grouper to the point where they no longer form aggregations to spawn and may be
considered rare or, in some cases, fisheries extinct. Nassau grouper harvest in federal
waters was prohibited since the adoption of the Shallow Water Reef Fish Management
Plan (Caribbean Fishery Management Council, 1985). However, fish population
numbers have not increased sufficiently in the past 15 years to allow spawning
aggregations to reform.
A shallow water reef fish stock assessment for the U.S. Caribbean was conducted in
1991, focusing on comparing data from the fishing years 1985 and 1990 (Appeldoorn
et.al., 1992). Overall landings in Puerto Rico decreased from a high of 5.36 million
pounds in 1979 to 1.67 million pounds in 1988. Only a slight increase was noted in 1989
and 1990. Data poor conditions were noted for the U.S. Virgin Islands, especially for
historical data sets. Projected reef fish landings appeared reasonably stable between 1975
and 1989 in the U.S. Virgin Islands (1.35 million pounds), averaging 0.93 million pounds
for St. Thomas/St. John and 0.44 million pounds for St. Croix. Fish traps accounted for
approximately 70% of the landings by weight. However, the capture size of numerous
species caught in traps decreased over time in the U.S. Virgin Islands (parrotfish, grunts,
surgeonfish, trunkfish and queen triggerfish). Large grouper species were absent from
the fishery. Only two smaller grouper species were common, red hind and coney. Poor
red hind (grouper) recruitment was also noted. The authors made the following
management recommendations to improve fish stocks: (1) establish compatible
regulations between federal and territorial waters, (2) reduce fishing effort on small
fishes, (3) protect spawning aggregations, (4) improve compliance with minimum sizes
and other regulations, (5) increase fish trap mesh size to 2 inches as soon as possible, (6)
initiate marine reserve projects and (7) collect more biological information.
Commercial fishers are required by law to submit annual catch records to the Department
of Planning and Natural Resources, Division of Fish and Wildlife, prior to license
renewal. The frequency of catch record submittals has been increased from annual to
monthly and the report forms modified to include more detailed catch and effort
information. As a result, the reporting efficiency by commercial fishers has improved
(96%), as well as the communication between data managers and fishers. The reported
commercial landings in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the fishing years 1996-1997, 1997-
1998 and 1998-1999 was 1.3 million pounds/4.9 million dollars, 1.4 million pounds/6.6
million dollars and 1.2 million pounds/ 4.8 million dollars, respectively (Tobias et.al.,
2000). In 1996-1997 and 1997-1998, fish pots, line fishing and net fishing represented the
most popular fishing methods employed in the U.S. Virgin Islands (29%, 30% and 19%,
respectively, of the landings on St. Croix and 45%, 20% and 8% respectively, of the
landings on St. Thomas/St. John. Of the line fish landings, 18% were pelagic and 12%
reef fish on St. Croix, compared to 18% reef fish and 2% pelagics on St. Thomas in 1998-
1999. Landings reported for the Virgin Islands for the years 1999-2000 and 2000-2001
were 1.3 and 1.5 million pounds, respectively (Uwate and Tobias, 2002). Although
separated by only a distance of 40 miles (74 km), significant differences exist in the
fishery, as evident in from reported landings. Inter-island differences are the result of
variations of habitat type, insular shelf platform size, proximity to deep water and
geographical location. Differences also exist in the ethnic background of the fishers on
the two island groups, resulting in a further disparity for preferred gear type.
Biostatistical data on the commercial reef fish and spiny lobster fisheries collected on St.
Croix during 1997-2000 indicated a 10% decrease in average weight of reef fish and a
12% decrease in the average weight of lobster specimens measured during the study
period (Tobias, 2000). Also the mean number offish/trap haul and weight offish/trap
haul decreased (drops of 19% and 13% respectively from 1997/98 to 1998/99 and of 40%
and 47% respectively from 1998/99 to 1999/2000. A decline was also noted in the
catch/effort of the gill/trammel net fishery. The number of families and species of reef
fish recorded from fish trap samples (18 families and 48 species) was greater than
gill/trammel net samples (11 families and 22 species) and line fishing samples (5
families/6 species). The percent composition of reef fish from a sub-set of the
biostatistical samples by fishing method indicated that two species of grunts represented
33.9% of the trap fish samples. Surgeonfish and parrotfish represented 30.0% and 24.2%
of the trap fish samples. Trunkfish, snappers and groupers (red hind and coney)
comprised 19.8%, 13.3% and 12.0% respectively of the trap fish samples. Gill/trammel
net samples were dominated by six parrotfish species. The line fish sample was
predominantly two grouper species, coney and red hind.
Fisheries biologists and resource managers in the Virgin Islands have long understood
that reef fish resources are finite, limited by available habitat and food supply and subject
to recruitment pulses from upstream larval sources beyond local and federal management
boundaries. The balance of nature that sustains these resources at the ecosystem level is
complex and delicately intertwined at all trophic levels. Man and nature can easily upset
Many commercial fishers recognize that they are catching fewer fish, lobster and conch
and those that they do catch are smaller in size. Not only that, but the fishers have to
travel farther from shore and fish in deeper water than they used to as well. Some of
these fishers understand the concept of fisheries management and have taken an active
role by serving on local fisheries advisory committees or Caribbean Fishery
Management Council committees to provide their expertise on how best to manage the
resources for maximum sustainable yield. Their livelihood and that of following
generations of fishers depends on the ability to make their living from the sea.
Numerous management recommendations made by fishers have become drafted into
regulation in the Virgin Islands. However, the impacts of unsound fishing practices, such
as over-harvesting from spawning aggregations when the fish are most vulnerable to
fishing pressure, take many years to reverse. As fishing gear technology advances,
fishers utilize the new equipment to sustain their harvests. Scuba gear was not used in
the Virgin Islands until the early 1970's for commercial harvest of marine resources.
Fishers realized that they could stay down longer, cover more area on the bottom and
harvest more conch and lobster and spear more fish than free-diving. As inshore
resources became depleted, resources further offshore were exploited. Scuba gear is also
used to set, herd fish and haul gill/trammel nets (1200-1500 ft in length), allowing the
nets to be set in deeper water along daily migration pathways traveled by parrotfish from
inshore feeding grounds to offshore resting grounds. Unlike fish traps that can only catch
a certain quantity of fish, the gill/trammel nets are capable of removing an entire breeding
school of parrotfish in one set. In addition to the desired species, protected species such
as butterflyfish and federally-listed, endangered sea turtle species are also caught as by-
catch. The hasty removal of the nets results in the uprooting of corals, gorgonids,
sponges and other sessile organisms. Herbivorous fish, such as parrotfish, spoil quickly
and over-harvesting of the resource has resulted in confirmed reports of wanton waste.
As the gill/trammel net fishery increased, the corresponding species caught in fish traps
decreased. Similarly, scuba gear is used to fish deep water purse seine nets, targeting
large schools of carangids (jacks). Catches of several thousand pounds of fish in one
purse are not uncommon. Haul seines of over a thousand feet in length are also still used
in shallow, inshore waters. The seine net drags across the bottom, as it is retrieved from
the beach, adversely impacting the benthic community and divers must be used to free
the net from obstructions. Although the nets are supposed to be pursed in the water, most
are hauled onto sand, where unwanted fish are discarded. Many fish traps in the Virgin
Islands lack the necessary biodegradable escape panel and biodegradable door fastenings
that would allow fish to escape if the trap is lost or can't be hauled on a regular basis.
These traps, if lost, continue ghost fishing for years until the trap is destroyed.
The coastal embayments around the U.S. Virgin Islands contain extensive mangrove,
seagrass and coral communities. These areas are important nursery grounds for
commercial and recreationally important reef fish and invertebrate species (Adams and
Tobias, 1994; Tobias, 1995; Tobias, 1999 ; Mateo, 2001; Mateo and Tobias, 2001). No
longer fished by commercial fishers due to the lack of resources, these inshore areas
continue to be stressed by shoreline recreational fishers with the take of juvenile reef fish
Within the last two decades, several major hurricanes have impacted the coral reefs,
mangroves, benthic communities and fisheries of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hurricanes
Hugo (1989), Luis and Marilyn (1995), Bertha and Hortense (1996), Georges (1998) and
Lenny (1999). Most seriously affected were the shallow water elkhorn and staghorn
coral (Acroporapalmata and Acropora cervicornis) colonies that comprised the bank-
barrier reef system and inshore reefs around St. Croix. Environmental damage was great.
Vast sections of these shallow water reefs were reduced to rubble. Coral recruitment and
recovery has been slow or non-existent. Algal growth prolifically covers the benthic
substrate. A die-off of the long-spined, black sea urchin (Diadema antillarium) occurred
Caribbean-wide in 1983. Diadema was the major invertebrate grazer on the coral reefs,
keeping algal growth reduced which promoted coral larvae settlement and growth. The
over-fishing of herbivorous parrotfishes also reduced the abundance of the major
vertebrate grazers on the coral reefs to keep algal growth in check.
Commercial fishers lost significant amounts of trap gear during the hurricanes. Unable to
obtain loans or federal grants to replace this gear and reluctant to sustain additional gear
losses, many fishers changed from the trap fishery to the net fishery. Once the fishing
techniques were adopted, fishers harvested more fish with gill/trammel nets in a shorter
period of time and did not have to leave the gear in the water to be subject to storm
events. The net gear returned home with the fisher after several hours of evening fishing.
Coastal Development and Habitat and Water Quality Degradation
Coastal development for private homes, hotels and tourism related facilities, marinas and
industrial facilities have resulted in the loss of important nursery habitat for commercially
and recreationally important finfish and shellfish species. Coastal mangrove
communities have been and continue to be the most seriously impacted habitats. Inshore
water quality has been degraded by non-point source sediment runoff, industrial
discharges (rum effluent and sewage), leachate from landfills and dredging activities.
Fisheries Advisory Committee Recommendations
Members of the Fisheries Advisory Committees (FAC) in the U.S. Virgin Islands
recognized the signals of overfishing and made recommendations to limit fishing effort
by instituting a moratorium on the issuance of new commercial fishing licenses. The
moratorium went into effect in August 2001. The moratorium would remain in effect
until a new license program was developed for commercial and recreational fishers. The
FAC's are currently working on a licensing program that would give greater identity to
commercial fishers, limit the entry into the fishery, restrict the use of certain gear types,
update fisheries regulations, establish new license fees and develop a recreational license
to identify the significance of this user group. The FAC on St. Croix has also
recommended that gill/trammel nets be banned. Other recommendations of the FAC that
have come to fruition include the establishment of seasonal closures to protect spawning
aggregations of red hind and mutton snapper in the territory, seasonal closures/size limits
and bag limits for conch, establishment of marine reserves and support of no take areas
on the east end of St. Croix.
Marine Reserves and Territorial Parks
Marine reserves have been recognized as essential tools for the conservation of marine
and fisheries resources and have gained popularity in the territory over the last decade.
Several marine reserves have been established in the Virgin Islands (Cas Cay and Benner
Bay Marine Reserve, Marine Conservation District, Salt River Marine Reserve and
Wildlife Sanctuary). In 2002, the Government of the Virgin Islands established a
territorial marine park program and designated the first territorial park on St. Croix, the
East End Marine Park. The East End Marine Park (The Nature Conservancy, 2002)
encompasses 17 miles of shoreline and extends a distance of three miles offshore to the
boundary of territorial waters. Most of the inshore waters have been designated as a no-
take zone. With the development of the East End Marine Park, job opportunities may
develop for fishers in a new catch and release guide fishery, or as park rangers,
interpreters, concessionaires or in other related businesses.
Presidential Proclamation #7392 in January 2001 established a new national monument
off St. John (Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument) and significantly expanded
National Park Service's monument off St. Croix (Buck Island Reef National Monument).
Under interim regulations, no extractive uses are permitted within the monuments.
Spawning Area Closures/Seasonal Closures
The Caribbean Fishery Management Council has established seasonal spawning area
closures in federal waters for red hind (grouper) off the south coast of St. Thomas and off
the east end of St. Croix (Lang Bank) during the months of December, January and
February. Ajoint territorial/federal spawning area closure has also been established for
mutton snapper off the southeast coast of St. Croix from March through June annually.
No fishing is permitted within the closed area. Annual seasonal closures for conch
during the months of July, august and September, have been established in federal waters
to complement those regulations enacted in territorial waters.
Fisheries Enhancement Program
In an effort to redirect fishing pressure from depleted inshore reef fish resources to under-
exploited, seasonally abundant offshore pelagic resources (tuna, dolphin and wahoo), the
government of the Virgin Islands has developed a program to install fish aggregating
devices (FADs) in offshore waters (Friedlander et.al., 1994). The FADs or fish buoys are
58" diameter steel spheres, mounted with a radar reflector and strobe light (registered
with the U.S. Coast Guard as a private navigational aid) and anchored in water up to one-
mile in depth. The FADs attract smaller baitfish and juvenile tunas, which in turn attract
larger pelagic species for harvest. The FAD program has proved to be very effective in
concentrating seasonally abundant pelagic fish species and is very popular with
commercial and recreational fishers. Fishers travel a shorter distance and have reduced
trip costs and greater returns for their fishing effort.
Essential Fish Habitat
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act (M-S Act), the
fisheries councils were required to describe and identify essential fish habitat (EFH),
identify actions to encourage the conservation and enhancement of EFH and identify and
minimize adverse effects of fishing on EFH (Caribbean Fishery Management Council,
2003). A coalition of environmental groups brought suit challenging the NOAA
Fisheries approval of the EFH Fisheries Management Plan. The court found that the EFH
amendments were in accordance with the M-S Act but held that the Environmental
Assessments on the amendments were in violation of the National Environmental Policy
Act (NEPA). NOAA Fisheries entered into a Joint Stipulation with the plaintiff
environmental organizations that called for each affected Council to complete an
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Within the EIS are proposed alternatives to
reduce adverse effects of fishing on EFH and reduce overall fishing effort by 30% in
federal waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone. These alternatives will undergo a series
of reviews and public meetings prior to final adoption.
The establishment of marine reserves and territorial parks, seasonal closed areas for
spawning aggregations for grouper and snappers and creation and expansion of national
monuments has drastically reduced the area of fishable waters in the territory and
adjacent federal waters. This situation has further been compounded by the limited shelf
platform surrounding the islands and non-fishable areas resulting from development or
industrial impacts. There simply are too many fishers for the limited resources available.
As the fishable areas become reduced in size, fishing effort becomes concentrated and
competition for the available resources increases. Priority must be given to issues of
licensing and fisheries regulations revision in the territory, reduction of fishing effort, use
of gear that minimizes impacts to essential fish habitat and over-harvesting of resources,
expansion of fisheries enhancement programs, exploration of loan or grant programs to
increase fisher opportunities and research of viable employment alternatives for fishers.
Recent opinion surveys in the territory have echoed a common need for the management
and conservation of the marine resources if we are to be successful. Adequate funding
must be provided for the enforcement of territorial and federal fisheries regulations
(Uwate et.al., 2001; Gordon and Uwate, 2003; Messineo and Uwate, 2004). Many good
management regulations currently exist. However, the condition of the marine resources
is only as good as the enforcement provided for their protection and conservation. The
Division of Environmental Enforcement was established in the Virgin Islands Code in
1972 for the sole purpose as conservation officers to protect our resources.
Unfortunately, with reduced funding and manpower, and expanding Department
enforcement responsibilities, little time is actually left for the purpose that they were
created to perform. Respect for fisheries resources can be accomplished through a sound
environmental education program and the dedication of officers with the sole
responsibility of enforcing fisheries regulations.
Fisheries management is not the responsibility of only fishers, but of all resource users
and those that have impacts, direct or indirect, on the ecosystem affecting those
resources. We must all recognize our responsibility in the conservation and management
of our marine resources so that successive generations of Virgin Islanders can experience,
appreciate and enjoy what we now have, understanding that it can be so easily lost.
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