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A Battle On The Gulf Pits The Coast Guard Against Mexican Red Snapper Poachers

Mexican fishermen tend to their nets on Playa Bagdad (Bagdad Beach), just south of the Texas-Mexico border. Poaching of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is a multimillion-dollar black market.
Mexican fishermen tend to their nets on Playa Bagdad (Bagdad Beach), just south of the Texas-Mexico border. Poaching of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is a multimillion-dollar black market.

Updated August 12, 2021 at 3:06 PM ET

It's the hidden U.S.-Mexico border war.

For years, Mexican fisherman have crossed into U.S. waters to illegally catch high-priced red snapper. It has become a multimillion-dollar black market, a Mexican cartel is involved, Texas fishermen are outraged and the federal government can't seem to stop it.

The U.S. Coast Guard on South Padre Island has a one-of-a-kind mission among the 197 stations along the nation's seacoasts. Its chief enforcement activity entails bouncing across the swells of the Gulf of Mexico near lower Texas in pursuit of wily Mexican fishing boats filled with plump, rosy fish destined for seafood houses in Mexico City and Houston.

These are the red snapper poachers.

"United States Coast Guard! Stop your vessel! Stop your vessel!" yells a Coastie into his bullhorn as the 900-horsepower, fast-pursuit boat pulls alongside the Mexican lancha. Four Mexican fishermen tried to outrun it but thought better and throttled down. The fishermen are handcuffed, their catch is confiscated and the boat is towed back to the Coast Guard station.

Scenes like this, captured on Coast Guard video, have become more and more common. Interdictions of illegal fishing boats have soared from nine seizures in 2010 to 148 incidents last year, with 547 Mexican fishermen detained and released without charges.

Coast Guard commanders, commercial fishermen, marine biologists and federal officials told NPR that the large-scale, illegal harvesting of red snapper is doing great harm to the Gulf of Mexico.

"They'll come into U.S. waters, they'll fish, they'll grab as much snapper as they can and they'll go head back south before we can detect 'em. The average catch they'll have on board is 1,000 to 3,000 pounds of snapper," says Lt. Cmdr. Dan Ippolito, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station South Padre Island. Last year, his station seized 37 tons of marine life from Mexican lanchas.

Snapper poachers are throwing the ecosystem off balance

Fishermen, Coast Guard personnel and scientists regularly come across gill nets and trotlines that can be 3 miles long attached to floating buoys. Both are illegal in this part of the Gulf because they kill marine life indiscriminately.

"We find red snapper, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins," said Petty Officer 1st Class Erin Welch. "It's incredibly physically taxing on the crew. We have to utilize everybody that's on board to be able to pull this up."

A sign on Playa Bagdad advertises fish for sale — <em>huachinango</em> (red snapper) is at the top. It is the most profitable, most sought-after, most fought-over and most regulated fish in the Gulf.
John Burnett / NPR
A sign on Playa Bagdad advertises fish for sale — <em>huachinango</em> (red snapper) is at the top. It is the most profitable, most sought-after, most fought-over and most regulated fish in the Gulf.

Michael Walker, of SaltWalker Sport Fishing Charters, pulled up a gill net a few years ago.

"It had about a dozen dead sailfish in it," he said, "and I don't know how many mackerel, little sharks, big sharks."

In 2011, game wardens encountered a nearly 3-mile-long gill net that contained approximately 3,000 juvenile sharks, according to Lt. Leslie Casterline, game warden for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The poachers also illegally harvest shark, cut off their fins and sell them in a separate black market that supplies soup-makers in Asian cultures.

"Removing apex predators from ecosystems causes cascading effects," says Greg Stunz, a marine biologist. "Sharks are at the top of the food web, and when you remove those predators, it can cause the entire ecosystem to become out of balance."

The boats are fast, have a low profile and are hard to detect

The snapper poachers are winning this cat-and-mouse game on the warm waters of the Gulf. By the Coast Guard's own reckoning, it detects only about 10% of incursions into fishing grounds estimated to be 500 square miles.

Most reports of lanchas are radioed in by Coast Guard spotter planes and called in from other fishermen on the water. But even with a precise location, the boats are elusive.

"They can go pretty fast, they're pretty maneuverable and they're hard to detect out on the seas because they have such a low profile," Ippolito said.

When the Coast Guard interdicts a lancha, it impounds the boat and outboard motor, confiscates the fish and detains the fishermen. But under the Law of the Sea Convention, foreign fishermen are released. They walk across the Brownsville-Matamoros bridge back to Mexico, where — U.S. officials say — they usually acquire a new boat and do it all over again.

"We've apprehended the same fishermen 25 times. We get a lot of repeat customers," Ippolito said with a smirk.

There is widespread agreement among denizens of the Gulf of Mexico that the federal government should do more to discourage illegal snapper-poaching.

"I mean, there has to be a deterrent to stop people from doing this activity. It doesn't appear to be working because ... the encounters with illegal fishermen have been increasing for a decade," says Dale Diaz, vice chair of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council.

U.S. officials are frustrated by inaction from the Mexican government

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the federal cop that deals with unauthorized fishing fleets in U.S. territorial waters. Such fleets' fishing is officially called IUU, for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. NOAA Fisheries has called out Mexico repeatedly for not curbing illegal snapper fleets. Mexico assures Washington that it's aware of the problem and that it's cracking down through prosecution, sea patrols and monitoring vessel registry. But year after year, nothing changes.

A top NOAA official — who talked on background because he was not authorized to speak for the agency — said they're frustrated by Mexican inaction.

"For a long time, we've tried to figure out how to make 'em stop," he says. "In the early days, we tried to bring penalties against Mexican fishermen, but it's hard to serve papers in a foreign country. That never worked for us. We've tried Plan A, B, C and D, and the Mexican government never did anything."

The beach that is home to the Mexican lancha fleet is the notorious Playa Bagdad (Bagdad Beach), located due east of Matamoros and 9 miles south of the Rio Grande. Four-hundred fishermen live here in wooden shanties. Marine rope and gill nets are strewn about. Yellow curs chew on fish guts. Fiberglass boats — white with blue hulls — are pulled up on the sand.

Idelfonso Carrillo is a longtime fisherman on Playa Bagdad who says he crosses into U.S. waters periodically to poach red snapper because the Mexican waters of the Gulf are fished out and he has to feed his family.
John Burnett / NPR
Idelfonso Carrillo is a longtime fisherman on Playa Bagdad who says he crosses into U.S. waters periodically to poach red snapper because the Mexican waters of the Gulf are fished out and he has to feed his family.

"El huachinango, lo maximo en precio y sabor. [Red snapper is the best in price and flavor]," says Idelfonso Carrillo, a 44-year-old fisherman who owns six boats. He's reclining in a hammock on his front porch after a day on the water.

What he says is true. A Galveston, Texas, restaurant is charging $38 for a single fillet of snapper. And at the upscale Central Market in Austin, fresh snapper fillets sell for $27.99 per pound, higher even than prime rib-eye.

Carrillo is remarkably open to explaining the ins and outs of clandestine fishing.

"The truth is there are red snapper in these waters, but very few. You all have them up there," he says, jutting his chin northward. "Here, we're using up all our fish."

He says the fish buyer may pay $75 for a batch of puny Mexican snapper and more than triple that — $250 — for a load of big U.S. snapper.

"We work every day, like campesinos," says Juan Obando Perez, a 21-year-old angler who works for Carrillo. "One looks for a way to earn a little more. Up there, the fish are bigger and there are more of them."

Unlike the diplomatic assurances that the Mexican government offers to NOAA, Carrillo says authorities don't do anything to prevent them from overfishing Mexican waters of the Gulf or crossing into U.S. waters. Other fisherman confirmed his laissez-faire observation about Playa Bagdad.

"There are times when we can't catch anything here, and that's when we have to look for fish up there," Carrillo says, "because we have families to feed! But we run the risk of losing everything. The Coast Guard takes it all."

Carrillo says he has been caught three times, and each time he had to spend at least $15,000 for a new boat and motor.

Drug cartels may be helping the fishermen

It is widely suspected among Texas fishermen and law enforcement that the Gulf Cartel is helping the snapper poachers buy new boats.

"A poor fisherman, you know, [pays] $3,000 for a lancha, $5,000 to $10,000 for a motor. How can he afford to lose that? Is he making that much, or is it a bigger operation?" asks Walker, the charter captain who sees a lot from the helm chair of his 45-foot, deep-sea fishing boat.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Houston confirms that the Gulf Cartel has, for years, used Playa Bagdad as a staging ground to run drugs north in fishing boats. And it's on the rise. A DEA agent wrote in an email to NPR that "based on intelligence, coupled with recent seizures of cocaine, we've identified an uptick with drug trafficking organizations utilizing maritime smuggling of narcotics along the South Texas coastal waterways."

Lt. Cmdr. Dan Ippolito shows Mexican <em>lanchas</em> caught and confiscated while their occupants were  fishing illegally in the Gulf. They are stored at U.S. Coast Guard Station South Padre Island and then destroyed.
John Burnett / NPR
Lt. Cmdr. Dan Ippolito shows Mexican <em>lanchas</em> caught and confiscated while their occupants were fishing illegally in the Gulf. They are stored at U.S. Coast Guard Station South Padre Island and then destroyed.

Sources on both sides of the border believe the cartel also takes a cut of the lucrative snapper trade and helps fishermen buy new vessels. A Matamoros native with deep knowledge of the local fishing business — who asked not to be named because he fears for his safety — said in a telephone interview, "Mexican fishermen are not millionaires. They can't just go out and buy a new boat. There are other interests."

But what really ticks off protectors of U.S. waters of the Gulf is how much trouble they all went through to build up a depleted snapper population over the last 30 years. Today, the species has rebounded.

Greg Stunz, the marine biologist, is director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He is also lead author of the recent Great Red Snapper Count, which tripled federal estimates of the species in the Gulf to 110 million fish.

"Red snapper has an iconic status in the Gulf of Mexico. It's very easy to catch. It's great to eat. So it's just an all-around idealized fishery," says Stunz, who is, arguably, the country's foremost authority on Lutjanus campechanus.

"There's been just horrendous battles among a variety of interest groups over these fisheries," he continues, having been a high-profile combatant himself. "And our fisheries are really robust, relatively speaking. So it's appalling to consider we've made all these sacrifices — then all these fish are going out the back door illegally. And so it's a big problem. It's an unrecognized problem."

U.S. Coast Guard pursuit teams captured 37 tons of marine life from illegal Mexican <em>lanchas</em> last year. Here is a haul of red snapper.
John Burnett / NPR
U.S. Coast Guard pursuit teams captured 37 tons of marine life from illegal Mexican <em>lanchas</em> last year. Here is a haul of red snapper.

NOAA is again taking stock of Mexico's efforts to curtail illegal snapper-poaching. The agency declined to make an official available to interview because of the forthcoming biennial report to Congress on IUU fishing, expected in September.

Mexico wants to remain in NOAA's good graces. If Mexico were to be decertified, it would lose part of the lucrative U.S. seafood market and U.S. port privileges for Mexican vessels. A spokeswoman for the Mexican Embassy wrote in an email to NPR: "The Mexican government has followed up on the cases of vessels reported by the State Department and is in communication with NOAA in order to have a favorable result regarding certification in September."

In a final twist to the story, Mexico exported 7,500 tons of red snapper to the U.S. last year, for a value of $50 million, with the lion's share of the profits made by wholesalers.

NOAA suspects some of those fish were caught illegally in U.S. waters, iced down in Mexico and sold back to seafood lovers in Texas.

The Matamoros source, who knows lots of fishermen, was asked what he thought the U.S. government could do to discourage the snapper poachers.

"You are the most powerful country in the world!" he said. "Lock those cabrones up in jail for a year, and I guarantee they won't come back here and cross again."

On Aug. 12, NOAA released its 2021 Report to Congress in which it decertified Mexico for "not taking effective action to address its vessels illegally fishing in U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico." For the next two years, Mexican vessels will be denied entry to U.S. ports and potentially face restrictions on the exports of fish to the United States.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 18, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio, as in a previous version of the web story, we incorrectly say that Mexico exported 7.5 tons of red snapper to the U.S. last year. In fact, it was 7,500 tons.