HARLINGEN — The game is cat-and-mouse, and it plays out in freshwater, saltwater and everywhere they meet.
Texas Game Wardens swept the Rio Grande last weekend, removing nine gill nets set by commercial fishermen from Mexico.
Gill nets, which indiscriminately kill any fish which thrusts its head through the mesh and becomes trapped, are illegal in Texas, but not in Mexico.
The wardens, from Cameron and Hidalgo counties, say Mexico allows gill nets on the southern side of the river but these nets spanned the river in U.S. waters as well.
“During the patrol they came across these gill nets that were extended from one edge of the river to the other,” said Ira Zuniga, public information officer for the Texas Game Wardens. “Normally, half of the river belongs to us, and these commercial fishermen will sometimes extend the nets clear across to our side.
“So we know that gill nets are illegal in our waters, so we’ll cut the nets halfway and we’ll take the nets,” he added.
Photos released after the patrol show the game wardens with the bow of their boat stuffed to overflowing with the plastic mesh nets and the floats and weights which keep the gill nets perpendicular to the river’s flow.
Michael Gonzalez, a Texas Game Warden in Cameron County, was on the Rio Grande patrol Saturday from the mouth of the river to Brownsville. He said there were two boats with five game wardens each from both Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
“It’s not illegal for them to use that kind of fishing net in Mexico,” he said. “Sometimes we go down the river and we find an abundance of gill nets and sometimes we run up the river and we find an abundance of crab traps.
“We know we’re going to find illegal gear when we go up there, and nine is not out of the ordinary,” he added.
Gonzalez said the patrol was fortunate to have discovered and removed the illegal nets shortly after they were set. Gill nets can be left in place for days, and the longer they are deployed, the more fish are killed.
“The ones on the river we saw mostly were baitfish — some mullet, some baitfish, some crabs,” he said. “There were a couple of turtles, soft-shelled turtles (and) a few snook, some redfish and trout.
“They weren’t soaking very long so the amount of fish that were in there was minimal,” he added. “We were very, very lucky in that aspect that we were able to get out there at the right time, because had we not gotten there, again the fishery would have suffered exponentially because each one of those nets has the opportunity of catching just an astronomical amount of fish.”
Picking a target
The river patrol is just one of the venues Texas Game Wardens oversee. Much of their work is found in the Gulf of Mexico, where Mexican fishing boats operate illegally with gill nets and with long lines, both of which are highly indiscriminate in the fish they kill as well as highly lethal.
Gonzalez offered an interesting look into how Texas Game Wardens determine where and when to patrol, and what they’re up against.
“We’re not going to concentrate on just a single specific area all the time,” he said. “The beauty about being a game warden is we do not have set schedules or set patrol sites, so we can go wherever we see fit at whatever time we see fit.
“We congregate with each other and talk among each other and say, ‘Hey, you know what, let’s go focus on this, or focus on that,” he added. “Plus, we also work with a lot of different agencies, including the Coast Guard and Homeland Security, and we talk among each other and we see what’s trending at the time.”
Out in the gulf
Gonzalez said illegal fishing by commercial fishing boats with home ports in Mexico is a familiar problem for Texas Game Wardens, the U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, agencies which commonly pool resources to patrol in the gulf.
“There is an abundance of illegal fishing boats coming from Mexico, there always has been,” Gonzalez said. “It’s nothing new. Sometimes you catch them, sometimes you don’t. It’s a big cat-and-mouse game just as anything else law enforcement-related.”
Out in the gulf, target species of the illegal fishing boats are migratory species like shark, Spanish mackerel or king mackerel.
“The majority of times it is long lines,” Gonzalez said. “They’re a lot easier to work for them, they can carry a lot more gear in their boats versus gill nets, where they take up a lot of room in their boats.”
The extent of illegal fishing in U.S. waters in the gulf is significant. The U.S. Coast Guard estimated there are more than 1,100 incursions by illegal fishing boats in U.S.-controlled gulf waters annually, with red snapper also a highly-targeted species.
“The inshore and the river nets are going to stretch 200 feet roughly depending on how wide the river is,” Gonzalez said, “where an offshore net could stretch out miles. Same thing with a long line. A long line can run like a spider web with one centralized anchoring point and they’ll run six or seven lines off of that in every direction.
“Each line is going to be three, four, five miles long,” he added. “It catches anything and everything, including mammals and sea turtles. It’s very, very detrimental to our natural resources.”
Gill nets are used as a fishing method where nets are draped as vertical panels normally set in a straight line in a body of water. Fish may be caught by gill nets in three ways — wrapping the mesh around a fish’s body, by being hooked by mesh slipping behind their gills or by being entangled by teeth or spines.
Gill nets are so effective their use is closely monitored and regulated by fishery managers and enforcement agencies. They are banned in Texas waters.
What is longlining?
Longline fishing is a commercial technique using a line with baited hooks attached at intervals by means of branch lines. Longlines can be at the surface or at the bottom. Lines can also be set by means of an anchor or left to drift. Hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks can hang from a single line. Longliners commonly target tuna, swordfish and shark.
These lines can extend for miles, and are prone to incidental catching and killing of dolphins, seabirds and sea turtles. They also are banned in Texas waters.