- Associated Press - Monday, February 16, 2015

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (AP) - On a crisp winter morning in the Gulf of Mexico, a 33-foot U.S. Coast Guard special-purpose craft bounced across white-tipped swells in pursuit of a rickety boat that was fishing illegally in U.S. waters.

After a short chase, news from a forward patrol unit crackled on the radio: The boat and three Mexican fishermen aboard had been apprehended.

“This is a typical day,” Coast Guard Lt. Mike Bell told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1v5jTbI ). “But sometimes they do try to outrun us back to Mexican waters.”

For years, state and federal agencies patrolling the Gulf have engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Mexican fishermen, seizing dozens of boats and thousands of tons of illegally caught fish, and removing miles of netting.

Despite efforts to thwart incursions by these small fishing boats, commonly referred to as lanchas, encounters are on the rise.

More than 30 Mexican lanchas were seized last year, and nearly a dozen caught in the fiscal year that started in October, putting seizures on pace this year to surpass each of the past five years.

Until recently, Texas’ commercial fishing operations viewed the Mexican lanchas as little more than an annoyance. But they’ve become a growing concern as Texas’ fishing boat captains say they are running across lanchas more frequently.

Mexican fishermen compete for local fish stock, with little regard for catch limits or species killed in search of the highly prized red snapper or shark, and some of their haul ends up exported back across the border to U.S. consumers.

“We’ve really done a good job with sustainable practices,” said Scott Hickman, owner of Circle H Charters in Galveston who also owns a commercial fishing business. “Now we’re having our market flooded with illegally caught fish out of our own waters. What a slap in the face.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates more than 7.7 million pounds of red and yellow snapper are imported from Mexico annually. While it’s almost impossible to know how much of it is illegally caught, it isn’t difficult to identify fish caught by U.S. fishing businesses that participate in a program that uses sustainable practices.

Gulf Wild, a nonprofit fishing organization created by the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, promotes U.S. fishermen operating in the Gulf of Mexico who participate in the program. They account for about 35 percent of the commercial red snapper catch from the Gulf.

It also enables chefs and retailers to trace fish tagged with the Gulf Wild trademark to the boat that hauled it in and ensure the fish is authentic Gulf seafood.

Even with clever branding that appeals to the more conservation-minded retailers, U.S. commercial fishing businesses insist cheaper imported fish undercut local outfits that have to adhere to regulations that foreign competitors do not.

Buddy Guindon, who owns Katie’s Seafood in Galveston and is a participant in Gulf Wild, catches 5.5 million pounds of red snapper every year, mainly for H-E-B and Louisiana Foods. A pound of Gulf-caught red snapper fetches up to $7 wholesale and $10 retail, but he could be doing better if not for the lanchas, he said.

“When you have cheaper, illegally caught fish that aren’t going through the same monitoring system, it’s hard to compete,” Guindon said.

The competition weighs on charter fishing businesses, too. Last year, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, an arm of the federal government, allotted charter boats along the Texas Coast a nine-day fishing season and just two red snapper per person in order to conserve the fish stock.

Meanwhile, lanchas are fishing year round. In December, South Padre Island’s lone commercial fishing and charter boat operation, Captain Murphy’s, finally sold its family-run business after years of diminishing returns.

“We’re all taking a hit,” Captain Murphy’s owner Stephen Murphy said of competition from Mexican lanchas. “It’s a lose-lose for us, and I can do better on dolphin tours.”

In recent months, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens and the Coast Guard seized thousands of yards of longline and gill netting that snag indiscriminately all that swim in its path - including marine mammals and sea turtles, the catching of which is strictly prohibited.

Even with Coast Guard and TPWD patrols, policing the wide-open Gulf of Mexico is a Sisyphean task. When Mexican fishermen are arrested, they lose their boat and fishing gear and face up to a couple of thousand dollars in fines.

While enhanced consequences for repeat offenders of U.S. immigration laws are possible, most Mexican fishermen are deported after a short time in jail, immigration officials say, much to the chagrin of Texas fishing businesses.

Earlier this month, Texas game wardens seized a 75-horsepower-outboard Mexican shark-fishing boat near the Texas-Mexico border. Mexican fishermen harvest shark for their meat, and their highly valued fins are sold at a premium to black-market dealers.

Biologists with TPWD say Mexican fishermen have a minimal impact on an otherwise healthy South Texas fisheries, but some Texas fishermen insist the waters aren’t as bountiful as they once were.

“These boats are on our boats everyday now and it’s getting worse,” Hickman said. “They overfished their waters, now they’re making so much money here and there’s a huge incentive for them to keep doing it with really no penalty.”

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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