The military branch also partners with South Texas nonprofits and zoos to help feed their animals with the catch that would have been thrown away before.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — When you think of the United States Coast Guard, images of them dangling from a helicopter rescuing people from the water come to mind. But the Coast Guard does so much more, including helping with border enforcement, which often leads to helping feed animals at a local zoo and turtle sanctuary.
“We are responsible for search and rescue, boating safety, law enforcement, and then the deterrence of illegal fishing or drug trafficking or migrant smuggling,” said Lt Cmdr. Dan Ippolito, commander of the U.S. Coast Guard station on South Padre Island.
When KENS 5 came out recently with Ippolito’s team, they were looking for illegal fishing or any other illegal activity.
“We do a lot of patrols off the coast for illegal activities, including drug trafficking, illegal immigration or illegal fishing in our waters,” Ippolito said.
Illegal fishing is a constant problem in US waters.
“A lot of the gear they use to fish is highly illegal and won’t pass any inspection for an American fisherman to use,” Ippolito said. “It catches a lot of other animals, sea creatures like dolphins, sea turtles, overfishing fish. It’s just not good for the environment.”
The U.S. Coast Guard told KENS 5 that in fiscal year 2021, it seized 15,484 pounds of catch along the Texas coast. It also seized 78 boats and detained 208 fishermen.
These numbers fluctuate from year to year.
In fiscal year 2019, the Coast Guard confiscated 21,413 pounds of fish. It was 33,821 in 2020.
Three hundred and twenty people were arrested for illegal fishing in 2019 and 553 in 2020.
In fiscal year 2019, 74 boats were seized and 56 in 2020.
“Every time we see this (illegal) activity, we are protecting our sovereignty, but we are also protecting the environment,” Ippolito told KENS 5.
Anything confiscated and can be donated to something like a turtle, the Coast Guard donates to Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit rehabilitation and conservation organization on South Padre Island.
Curatorial director Dr Amy Bonka said the partnership has been in place for many years.
“The Coast Guard also contacts us directly if they encounter a sick or injured sea turtle,” Bonka said in an email. “In fact, our most recent patient, Sherbert, came to us from the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard found the turtle struggling on the surface during one of its training exercises. They contacted us at Sea Turtle Inc., and we were able to bring the turtle to our hospital for treatment.
The Coast Guard’s new partner is the Zoo Gladys Porter in Brownville.
“We are small, but we were very involved in our communities,” Ippolito said.