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Hooking Poachers

Game wardens thwart illegal long-line fishing in the Gulf.

Story by Mike Cox
Photographs by Erich Schlegel

Game warden Carmen Perez stood outside the wheelhouse of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department patrol vessel Captain Williams, salt spray flying into her face as the 65-footer cut through a choppy sea.

The Gulf water stung her eyes, but at least it had a cooling effect. On a hot August day during shrimp season, she and three other game wardens were cruising in U.S. waters off the southern tip of Texas not far from the international line — a liquid border visible only on the navigational map displayed on the screen inside the air-conditioned cabin where Sgt. Luis Sosa sat at the helm.

When Perez spotted the clear plastic water bottle bobbing in the blue-green water, she pounded a flat hand on the exterior bulkhead to let Sosa know she had seen something. He throttled the twin diesel engines back to an idle as the gray-and-white boat with an authoritative black slash on either side of its prow coasted toward the small object, something no bigger than a short-lived patch of white foam made by a falling wave. Only practiced eyes would have even noticed it.

Most of the time, a piece of trash found floating in open water off the South Texas coast is nothing but man-made flotsam that sooner or later will end up littering a sandy beach. But not this time.

Probing under the bottle with a long boat hook, Perez let out an excited yell when she found a line attached to it, going straight down.

The innocent-looking, hard-to-see object marked the location of a decidedly illegal device.

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Game wardens, the U.S. Coast Guard and legally operating commercial fishermen call it a long line — a deadly efficient fish-catching apparatus stretching underwater for a mile or more and bristling with hundreds of rusty hooks. The people who slip into Texas and U.S. waters in open 28-foot lanchas (Spanish for “launch”) to poach state and federally protected fish species know it as a way of life. These environmental pirates earn very little in depriving honest anglers and commercial fishermen, not to mention the Gulf fishery, of very much.

Soon, all hands were on deck to retrieve the long line Perez had discovered. It took several hours to get the entire line and the fish it claimed on board.

Had the fishermen from Mexico returned to their line before the Captain Williams found the water bottle that marked it, they would have collected all the game fish as quickly as possible before cranking up their high-horsepower engine and racing back to the safety of Mexican waters. Once ashore at a small village known as Playa Bagdad (an old community nine miles below the mouth of the Rio Grande that served as a lively port for smugglers during the Civil War), the fish change hands, as does money, in a literal food chain that will likely end on a plate in a seafood restaurant in Matamoros.

Particularly hard hit is a species that is itself a predator, the shark. Sharks are being killed for their fins, which in some Asian countries are considered a delicacy.

The men in the lanchas slice off the fins with sharp knives, and then usually toss the sharks back into the Gulf, where they sink into the depths to become part of another food chain. Back in Playa Bagdad, the shark fins enter a black market that will see them sold for increasingly higher prices until they end up in a bowl of soup halfway around the world from the waters off Texas.

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Illegal long-line fishing in Texas or federal waters is nothing new, but game wardens and the Coast Guard have noted a striking increase in its incidence, particularly in the illegal harvesting of sharks. When arrested, the poachers all say the same thing: Mexican waters no longer hold as many commercially valuable fish. They come to U.S. waters because state and federal regulations aimed at conservation have preserved a vital fishery, no thanks to them.

Since law enforcement does not know how many pounds of red snapper, shark, drum, mackerel, grouper and other species are clandestinely taken in these maritime border incursions, the environmental and economic toll is hard to reckon. Even so, the yearly loss to long lines or gill nets is estimated at hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A 2005 study by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Coast Guard estimated that nearly 2,000 lancha incursions were occurring per year in the earlier part of the decade. Assuming each long line resulted in the hooking of 30 sharks, that’s nearly 60,000 sharks a year. Using even a conservative estimate of 20 pounds per shark, the total loss reaches 1.1 million pounds a year. And the pace is known to have picked up since then.

On Nov. 7, 2012, the Captain Williams discovered a three-mile-long gill net, a device some call “the wall of death,” about six miles north of Brazos Santiago Pass and seven miles offshore. Dropping 30 feet down, the net held 17 greater hammerhead sharks, 13 unidentified sharks (due to their advanced decomposition), eight black drum, six tripletail, one large red drum and several hundred triggerfish.

In February 2013, a four-day game warden enforcement effort dubbed Operation Shark Fin resulted in the seizure of one lancha and 17,500 feet of long lines in the Gulf. The Coast Guard seized another boat.

Last July 1, a swept-wing HU-25 Falcon Coast Guard jet on a routine surveillance flight observed a mile-long gill net in the Gulf about 20 miles off South Padre Island. A patrol boat made its way to the location and found 65 dead sharks trapped in the net.

Since October 2013, the Coast Guard has seized 28 lanchas and forced 34 others back into Mexican waters. In the process, it retrieved more than 12 nautical miles of long lines and gill nets.

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Game wardens haul in an illegal gill net during patrol on the Rio Grande near Brownsville.

Game wardens stationed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have a wide range of responsibilities, from assisting the Texas Department of Public Safety and U.S. Homeland Security with border operations to checking fish brought in for weighing at fishing tournaments to other routine conservation law enforcement activities. One of their more challenging duties is patrolling Texas waters (which extend nine miles into the Gulf of Mexico) and U.S. waters 200 miles offshore looking for illegal long lines and gill nets or anything else they encounter that needs checking.

Often the Captain Williams and other TPWD vessels out of Corpus Christi and Galveston will go out on multiday patrols, especially during shrimping season. As frequently as possible, TPWD’s seaworthy vessels will focus on recovering illegal fishing devices and interdicting any illegal traffic they may encounter.

A typical Gulf patrol begins before dawn. Game wardens who will make the run show up with sleeping bags, backpacks stuffed with gear and extra clothes and their standard-issue M-4 .223 rifles — just in case. After gear and groceries are stowed, Sgt. Sosa presides over a safety meeting, using what’s known as the GAR (green, amber, red) model to assess the level of danger.

Working on one more cup of coffee, the sergeant first goes over the objective. On this late spring day, with shrimp season closed, the mission is to patrol a segment of the Gulf historically popular with Mexican commercial fishermen. Intelligence shared by the Coast Guard, based on aerial reconnaissance and other sources, indicates that the illegal fishermen have become more brazen, placing their long lines much farther north than they have been known to in the past.

Today, the Captain Williams will work through Texas waters into U.S. waters, roughly paralleling the international line. If they find nothing in that area, Sosa will lay a course northward through U.S. waters toward Port Mansfield. He’ll anchor in the Port Mansfield cut for the night and resume operations offshore early the next morning.

Sosa and the crew assess several factors important to this or any mission — supervision, weather, planning, team selection, team fitness and the event (or situation) and its complexity. Assigning a numerical value for each consideration on a scale of 1 to 10, they come up with a risk factor of 31. That puts the mission at the “amber” level, meaning they should proceed with caution.

What has nudged the operation out of the optimal green level this day is the weather. The wind is already up, and 4- to 5-foot seas are forecast. That may not sound like particularly high waves, but when the boat you’re in is making its way against those waves at 20-plus knots, it’s not a ride for those prone to seasickness.


stripers

Game Warden Luis Sosa cuts an illegal net that was set by Mexican fishermen on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Game wardens have seen an increase in illegal fishing the Gulf and along the border.

Despite the rough seas, there’s no doubt that lanchas have recently been operating in U.S. waters. In fact, only the day before, the Port Isabel-based Coast Guard cutter Amberjack had sighted a Mexican lancha in federal waters in the general vicinity of where the Captain Williams would be working today. The white-hulled 87-footer had pursued the smaller, faster boat until its occupants safely made it back into Mexican waters and the U.S. vessel could legally proceed no farther. Maybe, Sosa hoped, they had managed to sink line and would be back today expecting to haul in their catch.

At the Coast Guard station on South Padre Island, which is where the Captain Williams is moored, there’s a large fenced-in area that “coasties” and game wardens call the “bone yard.” That secure enclosure is the temporary and sometimes final resting place of the various lanchas, long lines and tangles of gill nets that have been confiscated in recent years. The fiberglass boats are held in case they are needed for evidence and to keep them from being used again. One of the seized boats has even been spiffed up for use in training operations.

The typical lancha is 25 to 29 feet long. It’s an open boat with a 150- to 200-horsepower outboard motor that can push it fast.

Typically manned by three to four fishermen, the boat is equipped with extra gasoline tanks but little else other than bottles of water and gear. The fishermen don’t own these boats; players in an organized network in Mexico do. Law enforcement believes the lancha operators are merely cartel pawns. If not bringing in stolen fish, they smuggle drugs or humans.

Most of the time, lanchas venture out at night, set their lines and return to Mexico. While they usually mark their lines with an empty plastic container, wardens have even found lines marked by cruelly hooking a live brown pelican to serve as a natural-looking buoy.

However they’ve marked their line, early the following morning, using a handheld GPS to get them to the general area, the poachers come back to retrieve their lines and illegal catch.

The distinctive boats are small compared with most open-water vessels, but they have enough of a profile to be picked up by the radar on the Captain Williams. When a lancha is found and boarded, the boat, illegal gear and catch are seized and the crew taken to the Coast Guard station for identification and processing. Those on board are usually filed on for possessing an illegal fishing device and operating an unregistered boat, each only a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500. After laying out the fine in jail, they are deported to Mexico. Soon they are back in U.S. waters; many have been arrested numerous times.

More often, it’s not a lancha but the line that game wardens encounter. The most extensive seizure through last summer happened on the afternoon of July 31, when the vessel’s crew came across an illegal long line believed to have been placed by fishermen out of Mexico. The line the wardens hauled on board stretched for 1.5 miles. Wardens recovered and released from the line 23 red snapper, 17 sharks and one smooth puffer “rabbitfish.”

On the patrol earlier in the summer, the Captain Williams checked several radar contacts, but each turned out to be a commercial fishing vessel operating legally, a recreational craft or an oil tanker. No enforcement action had to be taken.

The two-day patrol did not come up with any violators, but the Gulf is big and the makeshift buoys used by the men in the lanchas are small and intended to look innocuous. Despite the dry run, Sosa knows the fishermen from Mexico are well aware that TPWD game wardens patrol the waters where they try to steal fish.

“Our goal is for them to be afraid of the little gray boat,” he says.

Help Wildlife

Anyone operating a vessel in Texas coastal waters who sees gill nets or long lines is urged to call the Operation Game Thief hotline (800) 792-GAME (4263), contact a game warden or notify the U.S. Coast Guard.

 


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