HARLINGEN — A theory advanced by a Mexico City diplomat that illegal incursions into U.S. waters were unintentional and simply resulted from the “loss” of fishermen is absolutely false, Coast Guard officers say.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has called incidents of fishing by Mexican boats in US waters a mistake, saying it can be difficult to locate the dividing line between the two countries’ territorial waters.
“Sometimes it is difficult to determine the exact line. It’s not something intentional,” Ebrard said.
But US Coast Guard personnel with experience banning these 20- to 25-foot open boats, called lanchas, say there’s no way navigational error was responsible for the incursions.
Chief Warrant Officer Jason Cross, now based at Coast Guard Sector/Air Station Corpus Christi, has experience dealing with illegal fishing after serving as general manager at Coast Guard Station South Padre Island .
So how likely are Mexican lancha crews to simply be unaware of their position at sea?
“Well, given that we’re doing interdictions 60 nautical miles north of the MBL (Maritime Boundary Line), I don’t think there’s the slightest likelihood that they won’t know where they are,” Cross said Thursday. “Plus, they have GPS on board.”
In previous interviews with the Coast Guard and Texas Game Wardens, agents from those agencies said crews of Mexican lanchas fishing illegally in Texas waters are well aware of the location of the border in the Gulf. .
When spotted by US law enforcement, lanchas invariably flee the border into Mexican waters, where they cannot be pursued. Texas game wardens have hunted 45 lanchas over the past two years and seized more than 32 miles of illegally set gillnets and longlines.
Cross said that in the current fiscal year, which began in October, Coast Guard cutters conducted 30 interdictions of Mexican lanchas in U.S. waters.
“Every lancha that we’ve banned since I’ve been there, and then until the ban last night, they all have GPS on board, so they know where their gear is,” Cross said, making reference to illegal longlines. and gillnets deployed by lancha teams.
Typically, they set up their nets or longlines, then return to Mexican waters for a day or two, then return to rehaul their catch. Longlines and gillnets are indiscriminate killers, and Cross said all catch is picked up and taken to Mexico without regard to species or size limits.
“A lot of our interdictions happen up to 50 to 60 nautical miles north of the MBL, which is off the Port Mansfield area, almost to Corpus Christi,” Cross said. “These are not unintentional errors. They know what they are doing.
“They are targeting resources and targeting the artificial reefs that Texas has created off the coast of Texas,” he added. “They know where the hotspot fishing spots are and they know where the marine boundary is. These are not errors.
Cross said the latest ban came on Wednesday when an observation flight relayed information about two Mexican lanchas inside US waters. The Coast Guard was able to nab one of the undecked boats, and the boat, gear, plugs, and GPS were seized. The boat will eventually be destroyed.
Under maritime law, fishing crew members are repatriated to their country of origin. But Cross said there were exceptions in some cases.
“If they don’t stop for us when we get to the scene with our blue lights and sirens and everything, then we can go ahead and sue for a possible uplift fault, and with that, Captain is usually arrested and he is put before a federal magistrate,” Cross said.
“On average, they can do three to six months depending on how bad the uplift fails, and that’s just for fishing,” he added. “If it’s drugs, obviously there are tougher penalties. Usually a few years; it all depends on the federal magistrate once they prosecute the case.
Beginning Monday, Mexican fishing vessels in the Gulf were “prohibited from entering U.S. ports (and) will be denied port access and services,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote. The decision was made in January and went into effect this month.
The port ban is the result of decades of almost daily incursions by Mexican fishing boats fishing illegally in US waters, but the move won’t affect the lanchas, which never touch US soil, always remaining offshore.
Mexico’s agriculture and fisheries departments said Monday they were holding informational talks with fishermen on the northern Gulf Coast, near the border, to draw attention to illegal fishing in US waters.
But little progress is expected in reducing illegal fishing in US waters by Mexican crews.
“It lasts, as far as I know when I was in SPI we had a history going back to the 70s,” Cross said. “Honestly, I don’t know what Mexico is doing to keep the fishery off its coast so it can have its own fishery, maintain its own fishery.
“Unfortunately, the United States is doing a great job, as well as the State of Texas, in maintaining the fishery off the coast of Texas,” he added. “So it’s a lucrative fishery.”