By Josh Boatwright
MADEIRA BEACH — Federal rules that strictly limit the catch local fisherman can take from the Gulf of Mexico each year have caused popular fish like red snapper to flourish again in coastal waters.
While commercial fishing operations such as Wild Seafood Co. in Johns Pass play by those rules and make an honest living from the sea, a growing incursion of poachers from Mexico and Caribbean nations undercut the regulations and fill boats with illegal fish.
For the time being, the only punishment these lawless anglers face is losing their catch and being shipped home.
A bill being pushed by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, and other lawmakers in Gulf Coast states would stiffen those penalties, stripping poachers of their boats and equipment and laying the groundwork for criminal charges based on the laws of their home countries.
Jolly met with local fishermen in Madeira Beach Wednesday and members of the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference advocacy group to drum up support for the new bill, HR 774.
“The number of days people are allowed to fish and the number of fish they’re allowed to catch is limited by the federal government that determines the amount in the water,” Jolly said.
“In this case, we’ve got foreign nationals coming in and taking part of that stock out illegally, ultimately driving down the ability of recreational, for-hire and commercial fishermen to catch fish.”
Small boats — those about 30 feet in length —from Mexico make more than 1,100 incursions into U.S. waters every year, taking more than 760,000 pounds of red snapper alone, the U.S. Coast Guard reports.
Much of this activity happens off the coast of Texas, but the effect can be felt in Pinellas County as the Gulf’s total fish population takes a hit and the federal government keeps catch limits low.
Last year’s recreational red snapper season was a mere nine days long.
“These people are poaching the total amount of catch we have, so conceivably we would have twice the season,” said Mark Hubbard, a recreational fishing captain whose family has worked out of Johns Pass for generations.
“They’re poaching more than we’re allowed to catch as American citizens.”
Poachers generally aren’t bothered by other pesky limits such as size restrictions and their outsized catch drives down the market price of the fish, making it harder for lawful operators to turn a sustainable profit, says Jason De La Cruz, who runs the commercial fishing operation Wild Seafood Company out of Johns Pass.
Ironically, the illegal fishing problem seems to be exacerbated by restrictive U.S. laws that have caused certain fish populations to explode in the Gulf.
“The better our stock gets, the more this is going to happen because their stock is actually going in the other direction,” De La Cruz said.
“It becomes easier and easier for them to make the run across the border and begin to work closer and closer to us.”
That border is an invisible line 200 miles from the coast of the United States, except in border states such as Texas, De La Cruz said.
Regulating the aquatic border, and what crosses it, can prove even more challenging than the one on dry land.
In some cases, illegal fishing is only a front for other illicit activities such as drug smuggling and human trafficking, says Brad Boney of the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference.
The bill to enforce stricter penalties on poachers was introduced in Congress last year and now has about 20 supporters, but Jolly and others are working to drum up a larger group to back it.
Some of the provisions in the bill already have passed in a similar piece of legislation that won approval in the U.S. Senate.
“Right now if I’m, considering illegal fishing and all you’re going to do is take away my fish, what type of a deterrent is that?” Jolly said.
“If we catch organized crime running drugs or other illegal assets, we seize them. We should be doing that with fisheries, too.”