Illegal fishing in Gulf grows, anglers call for action

Editor’s note: This appeared on The Fishing Wire this morning and was written by Chad Wilbanks, Gulf Coast Leadership Conference.

It seems every week brings another story of U.S. Coast Guard or other Gulf Coast maritime law enforcement giving chase to foreign fishermen sneaking into U.S. waters to fish illegally. Foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf, mostly by Mexican crew in boats called lanchas, is a persistent and alarming problem according to authorities from Gulf Coast states, as well as the federal government.

At a recent leadership summit at the Texas A&M University in Galveston campus, the urgency of the issue brought together a diverse group of stakeholders; commercial and recreational fishermen, state and federal fisheries enforcers and elected officials. Participants focused on how best to combat illegal fishing, and was hosted by the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference.

Julio Fuentes, President and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, urged citizens to “tell Congress that it’s time to take a stand against foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf.”

Aside from the theft of the fish, so-called pirate fishers show stark disregard for the marine environment. Often they sets miles of nets or lines that indiscriminately kill marine life, including endangered turtles and other imperiled species.

“Foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf “is an extremely important topic,” said U.S. Representative Randy Weber (R-TX). “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 illegal activities.”

Both commercial and recreational fisheries are an economic engine in the Gulf of Mexico driving 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 significant economic lift reverberates far inland.

A $23.5 Billion Industry

Illegal and unreported fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of wild-caught marine fish globally, or around one-in-five fish harvested worldwide. That equates to up to 1,800 pounds of fish stolen every second.

“I have visited extensively with business owners, recreational and commercial fisherman, and concerned citizens in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas,” said Will Ward, CEO of Captain’s Finest Seafood in Clearwater, Fla., and a member of the Board of Directors for the Gulf Fishermen’s Association. “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.”

Comprehensive statistics on illegal fishing in the Gulf are scarce, but according to Lt. Les Casterline with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Fisheries Enforcement, just one of his wardens in fiscal year 2012 recovered 130,080 feet of illegal long line and 53,840 feet of gill net. “That gear alone held more than 6,000 sharks, 300 red snapper and an uncountable number of Spanish mackerel,” Casterline said.

Legislation Needed to Solve Problems

A key tool to solving illegal fishing is federal legislation that will tighten the net on illegal fishing operations. In April the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to approve the Port State Measures Agreement, which would strengthen and harmonize port inspection standards for foreign flagged fishing vessels. The agreement cannot take effect however until House of Representatives passes legislation to implement the pact.
“Illegal fishing could pose a serious economic, environmental, and human rights threat to Florida and the Gulf region,” said Fuentes. He cited numerous recent media stories on how illegal fishers around the world enslave workers, often keeping them at sea for years in deplorable working conditions that often result in the murder of dissenters.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also linked pirate-fishing fleets to drug and migrant smuggling around the world.

Fleeing capture by Gulf law enforcement, outlaw crews have shot at officers hoping to create enough of a head start so that they can live to fish another day. Those caught face relatively light consequences: confiscation of their boat and repatriation to Mexico. Experts say this fails to deter offenders, with some illegal fishermen getting caught as many as eight times.

Harms Commercial and Recreational Sectors

Foreign illegal fishing is “the number one topic” among South Texas charter fishermen, according to Scott Hickman, a board advisor with the Charter Fishermen’s Association. “Illegal fishers are taking the ability from the charter industry to make a living. Our members see it every day. We need somebody guarding the fence,” he said.

The challenge for U.S. authorities is clear: clamp down on current illegal fishing and implement policies to better prevent it from occurring in the future.

According to Gulf Seafood Institute president Harlon Peace, if that doesn’t happen soon the Gulf seafood industry faces an uncertain future.

“I take great care to sell only seafood that was caught legally and sustainably, and I know my customers appreciate it,” said Pearce, who is also the owner of New Orleans Harlon’s LA Fish and Seafood. “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.”