The United States Virgin Islands (USVI), a Territory of the United States of America, are composed of three primary islands and dozens of smaller, mostly uninhabited, islands and cays. St. Thomas and St. John are located on the Puerto Rican shelf between Puerto Rico to the west and the British Virgin Islands to the east. St. Croix is on a separate insular shelf separated from the northern two islands by the 4,300 m deep and 60 km wide Virgin Trough. About 107,000 people live in the USVI with about half located on St. Croix. The number of registered commercial fishers is approximately 90 on St. Thomas/St. John and 120 on St. Croix. While hook and line is used across all islands, the St. Thomas/St. John fishery is dominated by Antillean-style fish traps, while fishers on St. Croix rely predominantly on spear fishing. A wide variety of reef fish species are caught and sold in fish markets including snappers (Lutjanidae), parrotfish (Scaridae), groupers (Epinephelidae), triggerfish (Balistidae), grunts (Haemulidae), surgeonfish (Acanthuridae) and jacks (Carangidae).
Reef fishes in Frenchtown market (mainly parrotfishes, Scaridae, on left; hogfish, Lachnolaimus maximus on right)
The fisheries are regulated by local USVI management agencies from shoreline to the three-mile Territorial limit and by USA federal agencies from 3 to 200 miles (Exclusive Economic Zone limit). Currently, regulations are uniform across Territorial and Federal waters and consist of catch limits, size limits, seasonal market closures, and seasonal and year-round area closures. The seasonal market closures and fishery closed areas were designed specifically to protect grouper and snapper during their reproductive seasons. The fishery closed areas include two sites off St. Thomas, the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District (41 km2 established 1989, closed year-round) and Grammanik Bank (3 km2 established 2005, closed February 1 through April 30), and two sites off St. Croix, Lang Bank (10 km2 established 1993, closed December 1 through February 28) and Mutton Snapper Spawning Aggregation area (8.81 km2 established 1993, closed March 1 through June 30). Many species of grouper and snapper form seasonal spawning aggregations and therefore species-specific regulations are in effect to reduce harvest during the reproductive months.
Groupers: Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) and goliath grouper (Epinephlus itajara) are endangered and therefore harvest or possession is prohibited year round. Red (E. morio), black (Mycteroperca bonaci), tiger (M. tigris), yellowfin (M. venenosa) and yellowedge (E. flavolimbatus) groupers are also protected from harvest bur only during the spawning season (February 1 through April 30). In addition to these closed seasons, red hind (Epinephelus guttatus) spawning sites are protected within the boundaries of the Hind Bank Marine Conservation District (MCD) and Lang Bank seasonal closed area and yellowfin grouper (Mycteroperca venenosa) and Nassau grouper are projected within the Grammanik Bank seasonal closed area. The MCD and Grammanik Bank closed areas have had a significant positive effect on spawning population abundance of red hind and Nassau grouper, respectively.
Snappers: Mutton (Lutjanus analis) and Lane (Lutjanus synagris) snappers are protected from harvest from April 1 through June 30 and vermilion (Rhomboplites aurorubens), grey (Lutjanus griseus), silk (Lutjanus vivanus) and blackfin (Lutjanus buccanella) snappers are protected from harvest from October 1 through December 31. Finally, Yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus) which also forms spawning aggregations has a 12 inch size limit. The Mutton Snapper Spawning Aggregation Area on St. Croix was designed to protect mutton snapper spawning aggregation but the effectiveness of this seasonal protected area have not yet been evaluated.
Because most spawning aggregations sites are used by other species during different times of year, these species may also benefit from the seasonal and year-round closed areas. For example with in the MCD aggregations of tiger grouper and schoolmaster snapper (Lutjanus apodus) have also been observed in spring and summer months. At the Grammanik Bank dog (Lutjanus jocu), cubera (Lutjanus cyanopterus) and mutton snapper have been observed aggregating along with tiger grouper, yellowmouth grouper (Mycteroperca interstitialis) and chub (Kyphosis sectatrix). Within the Lang Bank and Mutton snapper seasonal closed areas queen triggerfish (Balistes vetula), and dog and cubera snapper have been observed aggregating. Finally many shallow near-shore reefs host a variety of resident spawning species including Yellowtail parrotfish (Sparisoma rubripinne), striped parrotfish (Scarus iserti), and spotted goatfish (Pseudopeneus maculatus) but these spawning aggregations are typically poorly known and thus afforded little protection.