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 multi-million dollar black market, the 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. 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.
These are the red snapper poachers.
"United States Coast Guard! Stop your vessel! Stop your vessel!" yells a Coastie in 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.
"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 onboard is 1,000- to 3,000-pounds of snapper," says Lt. Commander Dan Ippolito, commanding officer of Coast Guard South Padre Station. Last year his station seized 37 tons of marine life from Mexican lanchas.
Fishermen, Coast Guard personnel and scientists regularly come across gill netting and trot lines that can be 3-miles-long, attached to floating buoys. They're both illegal in this part of the Gulf because they kill marine life indiscriminately.
"We find red snapper, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins," said First Class Petty Officer Erin Welch. "It's incredibly physically taxing on the crew. We have to utilize everybody that's onboard to be able to pull this up."
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 three-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 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 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, they impound the boat and outboard motor, confiscate the fish, and detain 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 Fisheries Management Council.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the federal cop that deals with unauthorized fishing fleets in U.S. territorial waters. It's officially called IUU or Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing. NOAA Fisheries has called out Mexico repeatedly for not curbing its illegal snapper fleet. Mexico assures Washington that it's aware of the problem and 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, located due east of Matamoros and nine miles south of the Rio Grande. Four hundred fishermen live here in wooden shanties. Marine rope and gill netting is strewn about. Yellow curs chew on fish guts. Fiberglass boats --white with blue hulls — are pulled up on the sand.
"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 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/lb., higher even than prime ribeye.
Carrillo is remarkable 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 the Mexican Gulf or crossing into U.S. waters. Other fisherman confirmed his laissez faire observation about Bagdad Beach.
"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's been caught three times, and each time he had to spend at least $15,000 for a new boat and motor.
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 Michael Walker, the charter captain who sees a lot from the helm chair of his 45-foot deep sea fishing boat.
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 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."
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 the U.S. Gulf is how much trouble they all went to building up a depleted snapper population over the last 30 years. Today, the species has rebounded.
Greg Stunz is a marine biologist and 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 that 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."
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 US seafood market and US 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."