07 September 2008

Illegal fishing methods: cultural or criminal?

A group of guys with cast nets and homemade spear guns, pulled out everything and anything from the water. They pulled out 20 or 30 fish in a matter of 30 minutes.

"They're just decimating the fishing down there."

"They took a cast net, dropped it over top this fish. Then, they took a spear gun and speared it through the [net]. Then they took the fish, threw it up on the bank, and they're beating it in the head with a rock."

This situation was witnessed four or five times over the past six weeks when the water was clear and low and the fish easy to see.

Every time, it was done by immigrants.

This didn't happen in Singapore, but we do notice that some of the harvesting on our shores is done by foreigners. Here is an article that discusses the issues and suggests sustainable solutions to the situation.

Illegal fishing methods: cultural or criminal?
Andy Thompson, Times-Dispatch inRich.com 5 Sep 08;
As hurricane remnants continue to bring much needed rain to Central Virginia, rising water levels in the James River have had the simultaneous effect of reinvigorating life on the river and covering up the scene of a crime.

River fauna seemed to go about their business with a renewed spirit on a recent trip to the now-churning Pony Pasture Rapids, but Joe Hecht remembers just a few days back when that wasn't the case. As birds sat listlessly in dwindling pools, Hecht was witness to a crime - one of many that happen in areas like Pony Pasture when water levels are low - at least that's the way he sees it.

But this crime (and others just like it) isn't necessarily as simple as it first appears. And it brings up a larger question - in this time when the resources of our game department are stretched thin - of the most efficient way to respond. A crime, yes, but is punishment the answer?

Last weekend, Hecht and his girlfriend stood on the north end of the Z Dam just west of Williams Island fishing for smallmouth bass. Soon, they were joined by a group of guys with snorkel masks, cast nets and homemade spear guns.

"Anything and everything I watched them pull out - bream and smallmouth and little channel cats and some flatheads," said Hecht, a fishing guide on the James. "I literally watched them pull out 20 or 30 fish in a matter of 30 minutes. They're just decimating the fishing down there."

Cast netting game fish is against state game regulations, but it wasn't the only regulation they flaunted.

"They took a cast net, dropped it over top this fish," Hecht continued. "Then, they took a spear gun and speared it through the [net]. Then they took the fish, threw it up on the bank, and they're beating it in the head with a rock."

Hecht said he's witnessed similar scenes four or five times over the past six weeks when the water was clear and low and the fish easy to see. Every time, he said, it was done by men of Latin American backgrounds.

That's a crucial fact, according to Ralph White, director of the James River Park System.

He sees this illegal harvesting of fish as a cultural problem, not a criminal one. These immigrants harvested fish for consumption with these methods back home, so they do the same here.

"They have a villager's resource-exploitation [mindset]," he said.

With the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries lacking huge numbers of boots to put on the ground, he says education and outreach in the communities of the people breaking the laws would be a more efficient way to solve the problem. Police enforcement is society's hammer, but this problem isn't necessarily a nail.

Gary Martel, DGIF fisheries director, doesn't disagree.

"We've worked with the Korean community when we were dealing with snakehead fish. We've worked with Trout Unlimited in special regulation areas on multilanguage signs. If our officers feel that it's a question of not understanding the law, we certainly look for opportunities to make sure people understand what the regulations and the laws are."

At the same time, Martel said, "You need to approach it from both directions. You can't simply allow illegal activities to take place."

Still, even as large Spanish-speaking populations continue to move into the area, none of the department's publications is printed in Spanish, and none of its officers is a native speakers.

Hecht said conservation officers "told me the only way they're going to make a dent in that is if they see people going out of there in handcuffs. They said if we catch them doing it, we're not going to write them a citation, we're going to take them to jail."

That certainly will have an impact, but is it the most efficient use of limited resources? And can the DGIF catch enough people to set an example?

White said a decade ago Hmong and Cambodian immigrants were electroshocking game fish in the James downtown, stunning them, then harvesting huge numbers. By talking to community leaders, White was able to get this to stop before anyone was arrested.

"We've addressed these issues before in other ways, but in this particular case, we haven't learned from the past," he said.

The Spanish speaking community is far more heterogeneous, of course, and it would take time to educate everyone who uses the river. It also would take time - maybe far longer - to clean up these obviously undesirable practices through law enforcement alone.

The question is to what degree we view this as a cultural problem vs. a criminal one.

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