HARLINGEN — In the sun-blasted, wind-riven waters between the South Padre Island jetties and the mouth of the Rio Grande, a different kind of border crossing crisis is playing out.
One side has spotter aircraft, radar and fully crewed patrol craft loaded with the latest technology. The other employs simple 20- to 30-foot boats with outboard motors, capitalizing on speed and a canny sense for beating a tactical retreat.
For Mexican lancha crews fishing illegally in the waters of the United States, low-tech often proves good enough.
In the past five years, U.S. Coast Guard interceptions (visual sighting at sea or by air) and interdictions (stop and seizure) are up. Last year, Coast Guard crews seized 60 vessels which were fishing illegally in U.S. waters.
This year, they’ve already boarded and taken 58.
Move in, retreat
The border between the United States and Mexico doesn’t stop at land’s end. It stretches straight east from where the Rio Grande pours its muddy stream into the Gulf of Mexico for 200 miles to delineate what’s called the Exclusive Economic Zone. North is claimed by the United States and south by Mexico.
Problem is, in Mexico waters, poorly regulated commercial fisheries are playing out.
But there are plenty of fish in the sea just across the border to the north. And that’s where the U.S. Coast Guard and Texas Game Wardens are making their stand.
“From the South Padre Island jetties, it’s about six miles to the river,” said Asst. Sgt. Jason Duke of the Texas Game Wardens. “In our larger boats and everything else, they can see us coming from a long ways out, without radar or anything like that. They just crank their motor and get right back across the border before we can get there.”
In Texas waters, which extend nine miles from shore, the two- to four-man lancha crews fishing illegally primarily target shark, using illegal long lines. But beyond state waters in the federal zone, lancha fishermen are more likely to target prized red snapper, illegally taking up to 780,000 pounds each year, according to a U.S. Coast Guard economic impact study released in 2015.
Long-liners, gill nets
In U.S. waters off Cameron County and in the Rio Grande itself, Texas Game Wardens have seized 84,680 feet of illegal long lines, 15,098 feet of illegal gill nets — both methods are indiscriminate killers —10 crab traps and 224 feet of trotlines.
And that’s just in the past six months.
“Most of the time we’re able to, if they’re setting their long-line gear, we’re able to at least retrieve the gear that was set illegally in our waters and file for destruction orders from a judge and destroy it,” Duke said. “Very rarely do we catch them, because it’s just geography — they’re close to the border and get there before we do, and that’s the end of the game.”
The fishing boats which lose the hide-and-seek game with state and federal enforcement agents are eventually destroyed.
Lanchas are quick and seaworthy boats from 20 to 30 feet long, powered by outboard motors from 75 horsepower up to 200 horsepower.
They’re perfect working boats for the gulf and for taking advantage of the fact U.S. law enforcement isn’t allowed to pursue them back into Mexican waters if they’re suspected of fishing illegally.
“Run-of-the-mill commercial fishing boards are a ponga-style boat, some people call it that,” Duke said. “It’s a very standard fishing boat for Mexico and they will put slightly larger engines on them from time to time.”
The lanchas dart into U.S. waters, drop their banned long lines or gill nets, and quickly speed back into the safe embrace of Mexican waters. After five or six hours — enough time for a boatload of sharks, say, to hook themselves — they race back to haul in their catch and again retreat to Mexico.
“The boat design is actually very efficient for cutting through the sea state,” Duke added. “They’re all-weather boats and do a really good job for them and it makes it difficult on us.”
Danger to game wardens or Coast Guard crews in this cat-and-mouse game on the high seas is always a concern.
Some lanchas aren’t what they appear.
“There is a spillover in the lancha business between the illegal fishery and narcotics smuggling,” Duke said. “So there’s always a risk you’re trying to contact a boat you think is illegally fishing, and he’s actually carrying narcotics.”
Narcotics smugglers can face decades in prison if caught, and can turn to violence in trying to escape, given the stakes. But lancha fishermen pose little threat to U.S. law enforcement officers.
In fact, many individuals may even be familiar, some having been apprehended more than a dozen times. Although their boats are seized, the crew members are returned to Mexico.
“For the most part, the fishermen, they’re never violent, they never pose much of a threat to us or cause us any kind of harm,” Duke said. “But this business is dangerous for us in the sense that we’re out there in the elements and dealing with all of it.
“If we get into a boat chase there’s always the risk of the sea state and everything, incurring an injury or something happening,” he added. “Also, when we’re retrieving their illegal gear, you’re pulling thousand-pound test monofilament and you’re pulling it over the deck, and if you get a really large shark on there, there’s always the risk of hooks in your hand or pulling you overboard.”
Red snapper, highly desirable as table fare, are a difficult fish to attempt to regulate. Inside of nine miles, that is left to Texas fisheries authorities and state law enforcement. But beyond nine miles out to 200 nautical miles, that area known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, federal authorities oversee the fishery.
The species is a lucrative target for illegal fishing by Mexican lancha crews.
The Coast Guard estimates each foray by lanchas into U.S. waters yields on average 800 to 1,200 pounds of red snapper a day for the illegal boats. For larger lanchas, it can be as much as 3,000 pounds of red snapper daily.
So where do these illegally caught red snapper end up?
Probably on your plate.
“Red snapper’s expensive,” Duke said. “You can go to a fish market and look. Most of the stuff they’re poaching out of our waters is coming right back across the border as imports and going to our restaurants and being sold or whatever, so it is a very lucrative business for them.”
U.S. government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have long sought to crack down on illegal fishing by Mexican lanchas.
“NOAA has worked closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and State Department for decades to address concerns related to illegal fishing by Mexican lancha vessels,” John Ewald, director of public affairs for NOAA fisheries, said via email. “Under the direction of the Secretary of Commerce, we identify nations whose fishing vessels engage in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and consult with those nations on improving their fisheries management and enforcement practices.”
In 2015, Mexico was identified as having vessels fishing illegally in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone as well as overfishing of stocks where regulatory authority is shared with the United States. Red snapper was one of the species cited.
“In our 2017 Biennial Report to Congress, Mexico was negatively certified for not taking appropriate corrective action,” Ewald added. “This triggered port denials of Mexican flagged fishing vessels from U.S. ports in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Ewald said the federal government continues to work with Mexican officials in the administration of new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in an attempt to address the longstanding concerns about illegal fishing in U.S. waters. He said the results of this effort will be detailed in NOAA’s upcoming 2019 Biennial Report to Congress.
He said NOAA was hopeful that, with a new Mexican administration in place, progress on curbing illegal fishing will be realized after decades of frustration.
“Mexico has begun taking legal action against Mexican lanchas caught fishing illegally in U.S. waters,” he said. “This is a significant step forward, and indicates that this approach may provide an effective and lasting solution.”