Texas game wardens have found a record number of illegal gill nets this year along the lower coast.
On Nov. 20, the U.S. Coast Guard notified the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that following a three-mile pursuit by one of its boats, coast guardsmen had apprehended a commercial fishing vessel from Mexico in Texas waters. At the South Padre Island Coast Guard station, game warden Sgt. James Dunks removed an illegal gill net from the seized Mexican “launcha” and found some 180 sharks entangled in it.
The captain of the seized vessel, a Mexican national, was taken before a South Padre Island justice of the peace and charged with possession of an illegal fishing device and operating an unregistered vessel. The other person on the boat, a 16-year-old male, was released to the U.S. Border Patrol.
On Nov. 7, the TPWD patrol vessel Captain Williams discovered a three-mile-long gill net about 6 miles north of Brazos Santiago Pass and 7 miles offshore.
Dropping 30 feet deep, the net contained 17 greater hammerhead sharks, 13 unidentified sharks (because of their advanced decomposition), 8 black drum, 6 tripletail, 1 large red drum, and several hundred triggerfish. Game wardens confiscated the net and released all live fish entangled in the net.
So far this year, game wardens working aboard the Captain Williams operating along the lower Texas coast have seized 138,080 feet of long line; 53,840 feet of gill net; more than 6,000 sharks, 300 red snapper, 211 red or black drum; 21 gag grouper and 2 sailfish.
All of the illegal fishing devices are believed to have been set in Texas or federal waters by commercial fishermen operating out of Mexico, particularly from the village of La Playa Bagdad, which lies about nine miles south of the Rio Grande.
“Illegal gill netting has an adverse impact on shark species and also traps a wide variety of Texas game fish,” says Special Operations Chief Grahame Jones of the TPWD Law Enforcement Division.
Sharks, the most common target of these vessels, are harvested not only for their meat, but also for their fins. Shark fins, used for soup, are considered some of the world’s most expensive seafood and its high demand supports a world-wide black market.
In another recent trend, the U.S. Coast Guard recently found illegal long lines with hooked live brown pelicans being used as floats.
“They sometimes use live pelicans in an attempt to hide the lines, since they know we are looking for more traditional floatation devices,” explains Sgt. Dunks, who pilots the Captain Williams.
Dunks says that arrests in gill netting or long line cases are rare. When the commercial fishermen are caught in the act, the only charges that can be filed are misdemeanors punishable by fines. However, the illegal fishing equipment and vessel can be seized.
Marine interests spotting gill nets or long lines in Texas waters are urged to call the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-792-4263, contact a game warden or notify the U.S. Coast Guard.