Gulf of Mexico fishermen are threatened by a daily wave of foreign illegal fishing vessels and the U.S. fishing industry is calling on Congress to take action, Florida business owners said April 8 at an event hosted by the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference.
Mexican fishing boats enter U.S. sovereign waters and illegally poach hundreds to thousands of fish at a time. Although the U.S. Coast Guard and Gulf state maritime law enforcement agencies have taken aggressive action to find and destroy these illegal Mexican vessels, the frequency of such incursions continues to escalate.
"Illegal fishing is a direct threat to the livelihoods of thousands of hardworking Americans along the Gulf coast and we must do more to protect our coastal economies, our coastal businesses, and our fishermen," said Congressman David Jolly (FL-13). He joined fishermen and coastal business representatives April 8 on a walking tour to discuss the economic impacts of illegal fishing on the historic John's Pass, Pinellas County as a whole, and its few remaining fishing businesses.
Commercial and recreational fisheries are an economic engine in the Gulf of Mexico, providing jobs, tourism, tax revenue and sustainable seafood. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Gulf of Mexico's commercial and recreational fishing industries support hundreds of thousands of jobs and contributed more than $30 billion annually to the region's economy in 2012. Florida's commercial fishing industry alone supported over 82,000 jobs, representing 51 percent of all Gulf-wide commercial fishing jobs, and generated $17 billion in sales.
Pinellas County, Florida is one of the Gulf's most important commercial and recreational fishing hubs, accounting for nearly two-thirds of U.S.-caught red grouper landings and almost half of all gag grouper landings. Over one-third of Gulf yellowedge and snowy grouper is processed in Pinellas.
John's Pass, in the city of Madeira Beach, Florida, has historically been one of Pinellas's key fishing ports. But today, operations have spread to other nearby locations and there is only one fish house left directly on the pass, Wild Seafood Company. Since purchasing Wild in 2011, Jason De La Cruz has grown his business into a staple of the community and reinvigorated a local industry. In order to remain economically viable, Wild Seafood and many other Pinellas County businesses need a reliable source of sustainable fish—red snapper and grouper, in particular.
"Fishermen in the United States have made great sacrifices to rebuild and maintain fish populations in the Gulf of Mexico," said Capt. Jason De La Cruz, owner/operator of Wild Seafood on John's Pass and board member of the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders' Alliance. "Foreign pirates know that, so they're sneaking into our waters to steal our fish, which undercuts our conservation efforts and detracts from fishing-related businesses around the Gulf. These fish belong on the tables of families in the United States. U.S. commercial fishermen and processors work tirelessly to deliver fresh, sustainably-caught, domestic seafood to our families. It is important for our federal legislators to know that the playing field is not level in the Gulf and our fishermen are being undercut by this problem of foreign illegal fishing."
Illegal fishing continues to threaten recent rebuilding of Gulf fisheries, limiting opportunities for commercial and recreational fishermen to fish, reducing the domestic seafood supply, and, if left unchecked, costing businesses like Wild Seafood and others around the Gulf their livelihoods.
The U.S. Coast Guard has taken aggressive action to find and destroy illegal Mexican vessels in the Gulf. Almost every week brings news about U.S. law enforcement catching illegal fishermen that enter our sovereign waters. The Coast Guard estimates that Mexican boats make over 1,100 incursions into U.S. waters every year, illegally taking upwards of 760,000 pounds of red snapper alone. Under current law, even those who get caught face relatively light consequences: confiscation of their boat and repatriation to Mexico, which appears to be little deterrent.
"My family charter boat business has been taking people out fishing in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1920s," said Mark Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard's Marina, which also operates on John's Pass. "As a life-long Pinellas County recreational fisherman, I was mortified to learn that illegal fishing takes almost as many red snapper out of the water as the total recreational angler catch in all of Texas last year. This degrades our fisheries and takes away opportunities from recreational fishermen. When that happens, business slows down."
Will Ward, CEO of Captain's Finest Seafood and a member of the Board of Directors for the Gulf Fishermen's Association, said, "You can talk to business owners and fishermen, and it doesn't matter if you're in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas. Everyone who I talk to sees illegal fishing by these foreign vessels as a chronic problem, and one they're looking to Washington to do something about."
Lt. Les Casterline with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Fisheries Enforcement told an audience at an event in Galveston, Texas in August of last year, that 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 held 6,000 sharks, 300 red snapper and an "uncountable number of Spanish mackerel," Casterline said. He then showed a CBS News video that reported that one three-mile gill net found contained 3,000 juvenile sharks – "an entire generation's worth," according to the CBS reporter.
Globally, illegal and unreported fishing accounts for up to $23.5 billion worth of wild-caught marine fish, or around one-in-five fish taken from our seas. That equates to up to 1,800 pounds of fish stolen every second. A key tool to solving the problem will be federal legislation that tightens the net on illegal fishing operations. Last year, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the Port State Measures Agreement, which would strengthen and harmonize port inspection standards to prohibit foreign fishing vessels from offloading illegally caught fish. And earlier this year, H.R. 774 was introduced in the House of Representatives to implement the Agreement and strengthen other enforcement mechanisms to stop illegal fishing. Although it has strong bipartisan support coast to coast, H.R. 774 has yet to receive attention in the House. In calling for action, Brad Boney, credentialed mediator appointed by Governor Perry to the Pilots Board of Commissioners in Galveston County, Texas, said that "foreign illegal fishing is a national security threat. Our elected members in Congress must give our law enforcement agencies better ability to detect, track and prosecute illegal fishing activity, and to close U.S. ports to foreign vessels engaged in illegal fishing."
Julio Fuentes, President and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, requested that business owners and citizens "tell Congress that it's time to take a stand against foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf." Illegal fishing, Fuentes said, "could pose a serious economic, environmental, and human rights threat to the State of Florida and the Gulf region." He cited a flurry of recent media stories on how illegal fishing operations around the world enslave workers, often keeping them at sea for years at time in deplorable conditions and sometimes murdering dissenters. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has also linked pirate fishing fleets to drug and migrant smuggling around the world.
Chad Wilbanks, Chairman of the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference, urged action from Congress saying, "This is about protecting our coastal borders and coastal economies. Foreign fishing boats are illegally poaching our well-managed fisheries and it will continue unless Congress takes action to pass legislation that will act as a deterrent and strengthen law enforcement protocols."
Jason De La Cruz added, "Our families deserve better than criminally-caught fish tainted by overfishing and slave labor. We deserve fresh-caught, domestic wild fish that is harvested sustainably and cared for properly by trusted professional fishermen and processors. We all need to tell our legislators that's what we want and they need to step up efforts to protect small businesses by cracking down on illegal fishing in the Gulf."