It seems that every week brings another story of U.S. Coast Guard or other maritime law enforcement giving chase to foreign fishermen who have entered into U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico to fish illegally. Foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf, mostly by Mexican crew in boats called lanchas, accounts for thousands of pounds worth of seafood and is a significant threat to Florida’s fishing and seafood industry, says Will Ward, a member of the Board of Directors of the Gulf Fishermen’s Association and CEO of Captain’s Finest Seafood in Clearwater.
“I have visited extensively with business owners, recreational and commercial fisherman, and concerned citizens in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas,” Ward said. “Everyone that I have spoken to is deeply troubled by the ongoing and chronic problem of foreign vessels engaging in illegal fishing. It is hard to grasp the impact this has had on our communities and our economy in the Gulf, unless you’ve lived it.” One reason for the concern is that U.S. operators get hit twice: once when the fish is stolen from their waters and again when it is imported into the U.S. – via land from Mexico – to compete with the lawfully-caught U.S. seafood.
The urgency of the issue brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including Ward, commercial and recreational fishermen, state and federal fisheries enforcers and elected officials, Aug. 18 at Texas A&M University in Galveston for a summit on how best to combat illegal fishing. The summit was hosted by the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference.
Commercial and recreational fisheries are an economic engine in the Gulf of Mexico, providing jobs, tourism, state revenue and sustainable seafood. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Gulf of Mexico’s commercial and recreational fishing industries support more than 168,000 jobs and contribute $13.7 billion annually to the region’s economy. That is a significant economic lift, and one that reverberates far inland. Globally, illegal and unreported fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of wild-caught marine fish, or around one-in-five fish taken from our seas. That equates to up to 1,800 pounds of fish stolen every second.
Julio Fuentes, who heads the Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said illegal fishing in the Gulf “could pose a serious economic, environmental, and human rights threat to Florida and the Gulf region.” He cited a flurry of recent media stories on how illegal fishers around the world enslave workers, often keeping them at sea for years at time in deplorable conditions and sometimes murdering dissenters. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also linked pirate fishing fleets to drug and migrant smuggling around the world.
Fuentes implored citizens to “tell Congress that it’s time to take a stand against foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf.”
U.S. Representative Randy Weber (R-TX) said foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf “is an extremely important topic. Those who don’t play by the rules…take advantage of our fishing industry.” Weber added that more can – and should – be done to “level that playing field and shut down all these illegal activities.” U.S. Coast Guard and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department patrols catch the perpetrators on a regular basis, but have little legal recourse for punishing them, beyond confiscating the catch and the boats, and sending the scofflaws back to Mexico.
“Commercial and recreational fishermen in and around Galveston are seeing the impact of the activity, both in damaged fishing grounds and in under-priced seafood entering the local market – almost certainly the stolen fish coming back north via land from Mexico,” said Buddy Guindon, owner of Katie’s Seafood Market in Galveston.
Aside from the theft of the fish, pirate fishers show stark disregard for the marine environment, often by setting miles-long nets or lines that indiscriminately kill marine life, including endangered turtles and other imperiled species.
Comprehensive statistics on illegal fishing in the Gulf are scarce, but Lt. Les Casterline with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Fisheries Enforcement told the audience in Galveston that just one of his patrol vessels, in fiscal year 2012, recovered 130,080 feet of illegal long line and 53,840 feet of gill net. That gear held 6,000 sharks, 300 red snapper and an “uncountable number of Spanish mackerel,” Casterline said. He then showed a CBS News video that reported that one three-mile gill net found contained 3,000 juvenile sharks – “an entire generation’s worth,” according to the CBS reporter.
A key tool to solving illegal fishing is federal legislation that will tighten the net on illegal fishing operations. On April 3 the U.S., in a unanimous bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate approved the Port State Measures Agreement, which would strengthen and harmonize port inspection standards for foreign flagged fishing vessels. But the agreement cannot take effect unless the House of Representatives passes legislation to implement the pact.
During some chases in the Gulf, fleeing crews have shot at law enforcement officers, hoping to create enough of a head start so that they can fish another day. Even those who get caught face relatively light consequences: confiscation of their boat and repatriation to Mexico, which appears to be little deterrent. Experts told of the same illegal fishermen getting caught eight times.
The challenge for U.S. authorities is clear: clamp down on the illegal fishing that is happening now, and implement policies that better prevent it from occurring in the future.
If that doesn’t happen, the Gulf seafood industry faces an uncertain future. Harlon Pearce, owner of Harlon’s LA Fish and Seafood, said, “I take great care to sell only seafood that was caught legally and sustainably, and I know my customers appreciate that. It is imperative that we as leaders in the Gulf Coast fishing and seafood industry work with our elected officials to ensure our fisheries are protected from illegal fishing.”