The Coast Guard chased a fishing vessel last October as it sped toward the Mexican maritime border.
Using a loud hailer, Coast Guardsmen ordered the vessel to stop. They activated lights and sirens on their cutter and used hand signals and flash-bang grenades in an attempt to stop the fishing boat.
The pilot of that fishing vessel, a Mexican national named Pedro Morales-Hidalgo, 43, made several “corkscrew” maneuvers in an attempt to escape the Coast Guard, and rammed their cutter to try to disable its outboard engines, authorities said.
Guardsmen eventually were able to pull the fishing vessel’s fuel line to stop it.
Morales-Hidalgo pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to failing to obey a Coast Guard order, court documents show. He admitted to hearing the directives to stop, but didn’t because he was fishing illegally and knew his boat and catch would be seized, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorneys for the Southern District of Texas.
The case is one example in a series of illegal fishing encounters between Mexican fishermen and U.S. authorities in the portion of the Gulf of Mexico patrolled by the Coast Guard and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who are working to protect the waters from poachers.
“We’ll make every effort we can to bring it to a complete stop,” Texas Parks & Wildlife Department Game Warden Sgt. James Dunk said. “They are going to get arrested and their boat’s going to get destroyed.”
Dunk is the master pilot of a 65-foot long-range patrol boat that is docked at Coast Guard Station Port Isabel. He said state game wardens work closely with the Coast Guard to curb illegal fishing, which he said is on the increase.
“Weather permitting, it is happening every day,” he said of Mexican nationals moving into U.S. waters to fish illegally. “It’s been going on for years and years. I’ve been here 16 years, but this year it seems to have gotten a lot worse.”
Dunk said Mexican fishermen have moved into U.S. waters because they’ve nearly depleted their own resources.
“They have boats coming up from Tampico and even Veracruz,” he said. “They fish out of La Playa Bagdad for a while trying to turn a profit, but they come from all up and down the coast.”
According to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department press release from November, authorities believe that all of the illegal fishing devices that are set in Texas or federal waters are by commercial fishermen operating out of Mexico, particularly from the village of La Playa Bagdad, which is about nine miles south of the Rio Grande.
“They have three forms of fishing,” Dunk said. “Either hand line for snapper, long line for sharks and stuff like that or the gill net, which does not discriminate on what it catches. Anything that swims in there is killed.”
A few more recent incidents include:
- Dec. 26: The Coast Guard found a five-mile long gill net with 345 dead sharks in it. That net was found four miles off the Texas coast and 17 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican maritime border.
- Dec. 17: The Coast Guard seized 151 illegally caught red snapper, which were confiscated from Mexican nationals who were fishing illegally.
- Nov. 20: The Coast Guard apprehended a commercial vessel from Mexico in Texas waters that contained an illegal gill net with 180 sharks in it.
“They’ll take anything they can get,” Dunk said. “Anything they can make money on is what they’re after.”
But sharks are especially popular because of their fins, which are used in soup and are in high demand in a worldwide black market.
“They love shark fins. That’s why they are nicknamed ‘shark boats.’ They specifically target sharks probably for shark fin soup. They dry them, package them and sell them,” he said. “They are poaching our fish and selling that product back into the United States, legally.”
In a recent trend, the U.S. Coast Guard has found illegal long lines hooked with live brown pelicans being used as floats.
Mike Cox, news team leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife, called the trend disturbing.
“Anyone who sees suspicious activities like buoys in the water, that are not official, are often indicative of illegal long line or a pelican in the water that looks like it’s trapped. That’s how desperate they are,” Cox said.
But arrests in gill netting or long line cases are rare. When the commercial fishermen are caught in the act, the only charges that can be filed are misdemeanors punishable by fines, but illegal fishing equipment and vessels can be seized.
Boaters and fisherman in the waters off South Padre Island who spot gill nets or long lines are urged to call the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-(800) 792-4263 to contact a game warden or notify the U.S. Coast Guard.