The U.S. government is imposing limits on the number of fish that commercial and recreational fishermen can catch in the waters it controls in the Caribbean, saying previous types of restrictions haven't protected dwindling populations of dozens of species.
The new limits cover the waters off Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and go into effect Monday, angering fishermen who say the restrictions on species including the highly prized spiny lobster and queen conch will endanger their livelihood.
Federal authorities concede the industry in the territories could lose more than $1 million a year. But creating a healthy reef ecosystem is a priority, Roy Crabtree, southeast regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said this week.
"If we overfish our stocks, that's likely to have an even greater economic impact," he said.
The U.S. Coast Guard is expected to enforce the annual catch limits with help from local authorities. Both commercial and recreational fishermen are supposed to report their catches, but some fishermen say enforcement will be hard.
"If you want to collect actual data on species and want to protect them, you're kind of forcing the hand of the fishermen to lie," said Gerson Martinez, a St. Croix commercial fisherman. "A lot of fishermen don't care. They don't want to lose a couple of months a year of income."
The new measure will hit the U.S. Virgin Islands the hardest, especially St. Croix, with small businesses there expected to lose up to $1.2 million a year, according to NOAA's report. The report doesn't give a figure for Puerto Rico but indicates the loss there will be much less.
Fifty-five-year-old Winston Ledee of St. Thomas has been fishing for more than 25 years aboard a boat named Great White, catching mostly spiny lobsters and selling them to upscale hotels and restaurants.
"I make my living off fishing," he said. "I don't know how it's going to end up."
The new limits could keep some fishermen from working the full year.
Ledee estimates he could lose one-third of the roughly $55,000 he earns in an average year if the limits stop him from fishing for three months.
"It's not going to sink in until reality hits," he said.
The limits cover species including angelfish. In Puerto Rico, the commercial sector is limited to nearly 9,000 pounds of that species and the recreational sector to nearly 4,500 pounds. In St. Croix, the limit is 305 pounds, and for St. Thomas and St. John nearly 8,000 pounds.
Ledee complains that the U.S. Virgin Islands has a much smaller expanse of its own territorial waters where restrictions are looser. Federal waters start at three nautical miles off the Virgin Islands' coast, while they start at nine nautical miles off Puerto Rico's coast.
"We are not at all happy with the annual catch limits because they discriminate against the Virgin Islands," said David Olsen, chief scientist with the St. Thomas Fishermen's Association. "This is a very bad time economically, particularly on St. Croix. Fishing has served as a safety net for the community there."
The new limits come as St. Croix braces for the closing of the Hovensa oil refinery, its largest private employer, and the impending layoff of nearly 2,000 workers.
"When the economy gets bad, people become fishermen there," said Olsen, former director of the U.S. Virgin Islands Fish and Wildlife Department.
Federal and local officials say the U.S. Virgin Islands has nearly 400 commercial fishermen and an estimated 10,000 recreational fishermen. Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has an estimated 200,000 recreational fishermen and about 1,000 commercial ones.
U.S. authorities created the new limits using catch reports that fishermen in the two territories submitted in recent years, Crabtree said.
"All of us recognize that in some cases, fishermen haven't filled out reports and that there are gaps in their data," he said. "These are the best catch estimates we have."
In Puerto Rico, NOAA officials did a recreational fishing survey to help fill in the gaps, but money was not available to do the same in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he said.
Despite concerns about the effect on the islands' economies, the new limits will ensure sustainable fishing, said Eugenio Pineiro, former chairman of the Caribbean Fishery Management Council and a member of its advisory council.
"We all want the same thing: lots of fish in the water," he said.