Patrolling the Gulf
Game wardens often face harrowing situations on the high seas.
By Ben Rehder
The Gulf of Mexico can be likened to the fabled goose that laid the golden egg. If we have the restraint to enjoy its fruits in moderation, it can be a self-replenishing resource for centuries to come. But greed in the form of over-harvesting can spoil it for everybody. That's why Texas game wardens — often working in conjunction with the Coast Guard and agents from the National Marine Fisheries Service — are constantly on the lookout for illegal commercial fishermen who abuse these waters.
"It's a big problem," says Game Warden Jason McFall, who is based in Kleberg County. "It's potentially devastating to the red snapper fishery and to the shrimping industry. All our laws are there for a reason. We've got biologists who study this year-round. They look at trends and they look at the best ways to manage our fishery. When illegal commercial fishermen violate these laws, it can do a great deal of damage to the gulf."
What sorts of infractions do wardens uncover on a regular basis? You name it, they've seen it.
"You may catch a commercial boat that's fishing in closed waters," says Game Warden Will Plumas, based in Cameron County. "You may catch a vessel that's got protected fish on board. If you go into the shrimping area, then you're talking about violations for shrimping at night inside the three-mile line, or a boat that's unloading its catch and the captain doesn't have a captain's license. You could run into a boat that's got its turtle excluder devices sewn up. There's also [violations related to] the BRD — the bycatch reduction device — which is designed to allow fish to escape the shrimp trawl."
One oyster-boat captain near Galveston became so upset after being cited for undersized oysters, he began throwing plastic jugs and burlap sacks overboard. His behavior earned him another citation, this one for littering.
McFall, Plumas and other wardens who patrol the southernmost portion of the Texas Gulf Coast have an added variable to deal with: foreign vessels. Unregistered Mexican boats play a cat-and-mouse game with authorities, sneaking into Texas waters to run gillnets or longlines, illegal methods that are particularly harmful.
A gillnet, as the name implies, is designed to entangle fish by their gills. Unfortunately, it snags just about every species that swims in front of it. In one recent incident involving a Mexican boat, wardens confiscated more than 10,000 feet of illegal net, which was brimming with dead sharks, cobia and two bottlenose dolphins. Longlining, too, is exactly what it sounds like: Baited lines, sometimes up to two miles in length, that catch all sorts of species indiscriminately.
The Mexican fishermen tend to journey northward because their own waters don't have as much to offer. "These are men that are pretty much strapped," says McFall. "Poor fellas that will go out and work hard on the gulf and make money. Of course, they fish down there so heavily that the better fishing is up in Texas."
The Mexicans favor Panga boats — smaller, tiller-driven outboards that are known for their seaworthiness. These agile fiberglass boats can usually outrun larger vessels back across the border, and their ability to navigate shallow waters inside the breakers can also provide a means of escape.
When an illegal Panga boat is spotted, "They make a beeline south as fast as they can go," says Captain Ken Baker, from Brownsville. "No good way of stopping them. What they'll do is turn their vessel right into you." Which was evidenced when a Mexican boat recently rammed a Border Patrol vessel, causing more than $3,000 in damage.
Plumas has been involved in his fair share of chases. "Those pursuits are wild. It's full blast, sometimes in 5-, 6-, 7- or 8-foot seas. All they want to do is get back into Mexican waters. We've had some cases where wardens have ended up jumping from one boat to the other to get the boat to stop. We operate as safely as possible, but we do our best to catch them."
Increasingly, some of these fishermen are also trafficking in drugs. "What they'll do," says Plumas, "is they'll come up, land on the beach and bury the dope in the sand dunes." A few hours or days later, a pick-up vehicle will retrieve the load.
When foreign-based poachers are caught, they are typically arrested, processed and deported, though their boats and gear are seized and often sold, with the proceeds going back into the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Ironic, because these funds can then be used to purchase specialized equipment that will help wardens catch even more lawbreakers. Currently, the department is in the process of acquiring the same model of high-speed aluminum boat used so effectively by the Coast Guard.
"It's designed to board other vessels," says Baker. "It's a high-speed pursuit vessel for law enforcement. We're getting more educated in terms of what it takes to catch and pursue these individuals. We're more aware of it, more conscientious of it. It's just going to take time."