U.S. Virgin Islands
Grammanik Bank, Marine Conservation District, U.S. Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands (18°20’ N, 64°50’W) lie between two major island archipelagoes: the Greater Antilles to the west and the Lesser Antilles to the southeast. The three main U.S. islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix are surrounded by more than 90 uninhabited islands, cays, and rocks, which provide hard substrata suitable for the growth of coral reefs. Many of these reefs are adjacent to mangrove forests, seagrass beds and algal plains, which are important nursery habitats for reef-associated fishes. The Grammanik Bank spawning aggregation site is located along the shelf edge 12 km south of St. Thomas, and is used by a large number of commercially important fish species including Nassau grouper, yellowfin grouper, tiger grouper, yellowmouth grouper, cubera snapper, dog snapper, and mutton snapper.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have been subjected to natural disasters, including hurricanes and mass bleaching events, as well as human threats such as overfishing. The die-off of Diadema sea urchins in 1983, and coral disease outbreaks in the 1970s and 2006, have also threatened reefs. Anthropogenic impacts include coastal development, which has destroyed natural buffers such as mangrove forests, salt ponds and wetlands, and has dramatically increased sedimentation on nearshore coral reefs. Pollutants, untreated sewage, and other chemicals also flow into the coastal environment during heavy rainfall events. In addition, ineffective management of the coastal zone further exacerbates these problems.
Overfishing is a major concern in the USVI, with approximately 350 licensed commercial fishermen using a variety of gear, including Antillian fish traps, hand lines, gill nets, long lines and seine nets. Trap fishermen deploy over 5000 fish traps throughout the shelf of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, and catch a wide assortment of reef fish (snapper, grouper, grunts, triggerfish, surgeonfish, parrot fish, angelfish, and jacks), most of which are sold at local fish markets and to restaurants. Artisanal and recreational fishing is concentrated mostly along the shoreline or in near-shore waters. It is thought that most fish stocks in the Virgin Islands are overfished, as evidenced by the absence of large predatory species (i.e., snapper and groupers).
The fish spawning aggregation (FSA) monitoring project at Grammanik Bank began as a collaborative effort with the USVI Division of Fish and Wildlife, which provided funding to collect baseline data on an exploited yellowfin grouper spawning aggregation. The information collected included number of fish within the aggregation, size frequency of males and females, location of the spawning sites, and the specific area used by aggregating groupers. Cooperation by local fishermen allowed the search for the spawning aggregation sites to be narrowed. Over two spawning seasons, nearly one hundred hours of visual censuses were completed, using timed swims and scooter surveys. Based on these surveys, the actual spawning site was identified, and initial boundaries for protecting the spawning aggregation site were established. Through monitoring activities, several other species of grouper and snapper (including the endangered Nassau grouper) were discovered to have used the same spawning aggregation site.
The information from this study was compiled in the form of a letter to the Caribbean Fisheries Management Council, and to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which recommended immediate seasonal closure of the site. Public discussion forums were then initiated to discuss the proposed closure with commercial fishermen, scientists, and management and enforcement agencies (U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Coast Guard, U.S.V.I. Division of Environmental Enforcement). These discussions resulted in three proposed closure boundaries which varied considerably in size, from 100 km2 to 4.5 km2 plus the protection of coral reef habitat of the Grammanik Bank. After a series of meetings, the commercial fishermen rejected the two larger closures (20 km2 and 100 km2) and accepted the smaller closure, due to a lack of scientific data justifying a larger closure and the severe impact it would impose from loss of fishing grounds.
Since the establishment of the Grammanik Bank closure, UVI scientists have continued to monitor yellowfin and Nassau grouper spawning populations, through underwater surveys, catch and release, and conventional tagging programs, with funding from NOAA’s NMFS, Puerto Rico Sea Grant and National Institutes of Health. Currently, acoustic tracking of grouper movements are being used to identify areas occupied during spawning and migratory pathways of yellowfin and Nassau grouper. This information will be used to make recommendations to management agencies and commercial fishermen for altered boundaries.
Since the closure of the FSA, the number of groupers and other species that occupy the spawning aggregation site during the spawning season have increased. Prohibiting fishing has allowed populations to increase, and spawning to take place undisturbed. The issue of the FSA closure has motivated fishermen to organize and take an active role in fisheries management. This resulted in the formation of the St. Thomas Fishermen’s Association, who hold fundraisers so that they can attend Caribbean Fisheries Management Council meetings, as well as publish a quarterly newsletter (The Olewife). Another closure, the Red Hind Bank Marine Conservation District (MCD), has been extremely successful in rebuilding the spawning population of red hind, and has resulted in fishermen catching greater numbers and larger sizes of red hind in surrounding areas. This positive impact of a fishery closure makes more fishermen receptive to MPAs as a viable management option.
Although the project was successful in protecting several commercially important species during spawning, UVI scientists continue to face many challenges, such as informing fishermen of the value of protecting spawning aggregation sites, seeking funding for continued research and monitoring, and sampling the spawning sites themselves. To address fishermen’s issues, public meetings were held where fishermen could express their frustrations and concerns, and scientists could explain the biological reasoning behind protecting aggregations for sustainable fishing. Fishermen were also given the opportunity to participate in the sampling and tagging program, although this was not always successful, due to inadequate funding for a fishermen’s time. Achieving full participation of commercial fishermen in tag return reward programs has also been an on-going challenge.
In 2004, UVI scientists received funding from NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, The Nature Conservancy, and Ocean Conservancy to produce an educational documentary on science, management and socio-economic aspects of spawning aggregations in the USVI. This documentary, Seas of Change: Spawning Aggregations of the Virgin Islands, includes descriptions of grouper and snapper life history and behavior, scientific methods used to study aggregations, and opinions of fishermen, managers, political leaders and the general public. This video has been broadcast on the local Public Broadcasting Station, presented at several public showings on the three main islands, and shown at fisheries management conferences. Nearly one-thousand copies have been distributed to local schools, government agencies and scientific conferences. A Spanish translation of this documentary is currently underway.
- Finding positive examples of how conservation measures can actually increase fisheries productivity can be a very powerful force in convincing fishermen to change their views. This can be in the form of documentaries, meetings with fishermen from other countries who have had positive experiences, or local examples of improving fisheries.
- If management measures or proposed closures are supported by biologically relevant, accurate and well-grounded scientific data, there may be less resistance by fishermen and other user groups. Scientific data that are weak, or lacking, undermines management proposals and may slow progress.
- Proper education and public outreach is critical. For example, it took nearly five years for management agencies to implement the Grammanik Bank closure. During these years, many fishermen claimed that the FSA was fished particularly heavily, because they thought it would be the last opportunity to fish Grammanik Bank.
- National Marine Fisheries Service MARFIN Program
- Caribbean Fisheries Management Council
- National Institutes of Health SCORE program
- Puerto Rico Sea Grant Program
- NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program
- The Nature Conservancy
- Ocean Conservancy
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF)
Partner Organizations with UVI
USVI Department of Planning and Natural Resources
Division of Fish and Wildlife
6291 Estate Nazareth, 101
St. Thomas, VI 00802
Phone: (340) 775-6762
Fax: (340) 775-3972
Caribbean Fisheries Management Council
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),
US Department of Commerce
268 Muñoz Rivera Ave.,
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00918-1920
Tel.: (787) 766-5927
Fax: (787) 766-6239
The Nature Conservancy
3052 Estate Little Princess
Christiansted, St. Croix
Phone: (340) 773-5575
Box 667, Richmond
Christiansted, St. Croix
Phone: (340) 719-8590
NOAA—National Marine Fisheries Service
Southeast Regional Office
263 13th Ave South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Phone: (727) 824-5301
Rick Nemeth, Ph.D., Director
Center for Marine and Environmental Studies
University of the Virgin Islands
Marine Science Center
2 John Brewer’s Bay
St. Thomas, USVI 00802-9990
Phone: (340) 693-1380