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

Jul 18, 2021
Originally published on July 27, 2021 4:12 am

Updated July 18, 2021 at 5:33 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 — huachinango (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

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

"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 lanchas 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

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 lanchas last year. Here is a haul of red snapper.
John Burnett / NPR

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."

: 7/18/21

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.

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

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now, off the Texas coast, a multimillion-dollar black market is thriving. For years, Mexican fishermen have crossed into U.S. waters to illegally catch high-priced red snapper. Texas fishermen are outraged, a Mexican cartel is involved and the federal government can't seem to stop it. NPR's John Burnett has our exclusive report.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The U.S. Coast Guard station on South Padre Island has a one-of-a-kind mission among the 197 stations along the nation's seashores. Their chief enforcement activity entails bouncing across the swells of the lower Texas Gulf in pursuit of wily Mexican fishing boats filled with plump, rosy fish destined for seafood houses in Mexico City and Houston. The chase sounds like this, from a Coast Guard video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COAST GUARD OFFICER: United States Coast Guard. Stop your vessel. Stop your vessel.

BURNETT: It's getting worse. Coast Guard interdictions of illegal fishing boats like this one have soared from nine seizures in 2010 to 148 last year. They detained more than 500 Mexican fishermen. Coast Guard commanders, commercial fishermen, marine biologists and federal officials interviewed for this report say the large-scale illegal harvesting of red snapper is doing great harm to the Gulf.

DAN IPPOLITO: They'll come into, you know, 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 them. The average catch they'll have on board is 1,000 to 3,000 pounds of snapper.

BURNETT: Lieutenant Commander Dan Ippolito reports that last year, the South Padre station seized 37 tons of marine life from Mexican lanchas, as they're called. I joined them on a recent patrol of the Gulf in a 900-horsepower-fast pursuit boat. They regularly come across trot lines and gill netting that can be 3 miles long. They're both illegal in this part of the Gulf because they kill marine life indiscriminately. First Class Petty Officer Erin Welch is driving the boat.

ERIN WELCH: We find red snapper, sharks, sea turtles. It's incredibly physically taxing on the crew. We have to utilize everybody that's onboard to be able to pull this up.

BURNETT: The snapper poachers are winning this cat-and-mouse game on the warm waters of the Gulf. By the Coast Guard's own reckoning, they detect only about 10% of incursions into U.S. waters. Again, Lieutenant Commander Ippolito.

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

BURNETT: When the Coast Guard interdicts a lancha, they impound the boat and motor, confiscate the fish and detain the fishermen. But under the Law of the Sea Convention, they're released with no charges. They return to Mexico, where they usually acquire a new boat and do it all over again. The Coast Guard says they've apprehended the same fishermen more than 20 times.

GREG STUNZ: I think there should be more consequences for the individuals doing this, but also those that are probably backing it as well.

BURNETT: Greg Stunz is a marine biologist at the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies in Corpus Christi, Texas. He shares the widespread belief in the Gulf that the federal government should do more to discourage illegal snapper poaching. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the federal cop that deals with unauthorized fishing fleets in U.S. waters. NOAA Fisheries has called out Mexico repeatedly for not curbing its illegal snapper fleet.

Mexico assures Washington that it's cracking down through prosecution and policing. But year after year, nothing changes. A top NOAA official, who was not authorized to speak for the agency, told me they're frustrated by Mexican inaction. Quote, "we've tried to figure out how to make them stop. We've tried plan A, B, C and D, and the Mexican government never did anything."

The homeport of the Mexican lancha fleet is Playa Bagdad, located about 9 miles south of the Rio Grande. Four hundred fishermen live here in wooden shanties with gill nets and long lines strewn about, cur dogs chewing on fish guts and fiberglass boats pulled up on the sand. When I arrived, fishermen were hauling in the day's catch, which included a batch of small snapper.

IDELFONSO CARRILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Huachinango - red snapper - it's the best in price and flavor," said 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.

CARRILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "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." Carrillo says the fish buyer may pay $75 for a load of puny Mexican snapper and more than triple that, $250, for big U.S. snapper. He continues, Mexican authorities don't do anything to stop them from crossing into U.S. waters.

CARRILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "There are times when we can't catch anything here, and that's when we have to look for fish up there because we have families to feed. But we run the risk of losing everything," he says. "The Coast Guard takes it all." Carrillo says he's been caught three times, and each time, he had to spend at least $15,000 for a new boat and motor. It's widely suspected among Texas fishermen and law enforcement that the Gulf Cartel is helping the snapper poachers buy new boats. Michael Walker is a charter captain who sees a lot from the helm chair of his 45-foot deep sea fishing boat.

MICHAEL WALKER: That makes me think that - a poor fisherman - you know, three thousand bucks, whatever, for a panga boat, $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?

BURNETT: Walker is also appalled at the needless slaughter of sea life caused by the floating fishing gear. The illegal fishermen get spooked by the Coast Guard and dash back to Mexican waters, but their gill netting just keeps killing.

WALKER: I pulled one up a few years ago. It had about a dozen dead sailfish in it. I don't know how many mackerel, little sharks, big sharks. It was about a mile long.

BURNETT: The 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 says they've seen an uptick in cocaine smuggling along the lower Texas coast. 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, told me 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 the Gulf is how much trouble they all went to to build up a depleted snapper population over the last 30 years. Today, the species has rebounded robustly, says marine biologist Greg Stunz.

STUNZ: So it's somewhat appalling to think we've made all of these sacrifices, are a slap in the face, and then all these fish go out the back door illegally by illegal fishing. And so it's a big problem. It's an unrecognized problem.

BURNETT: In a final twist to the story, Mexico exported 7 1/2 tons of red snapper to the U.S. last year for a value of $50 million. NOAA suspects some of the fish were caught illegally in U.S. waters, iced down in Mexico and sold back to seafood lovers in Texas. John Burnett, NPR News, South Padre Island.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: 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.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.