The Great Snapper Debate: Poaching, Egos, Name Calling and Arguments Abound

Fresh snapper caught in U.S. federal waters in a fish market in the Mexican state of Tamulipas
(Photo: Matt Briscoe)

by Matt Briscoe, Stephen Jimenez and Emily Barker

El Galaneño, Tamulipas, Mexico--“You don’t own the fish. God does”, is what the Mexican fisherman who identifies himself as “Felipe” tells me as he begins loading his lancha boat to head out into the Gulf of Mexico. Felipe is one of many Mexican fisherman who could be identified as poacher, and who are taking the prized red snapper from within federal waters of the United States.

The issue is a hot one not only here in the United States but in Mexico, as well because red snapper is a very popular table fish and it fetches big money from American tourists and Mexican fish buyers. In the middle of the debate lies conservation, but at the heart of it, lies the root of all evil--money.
A Mexican lancha boat deckhand is paid
in American money after splitting up his catch
(Matt Briscoe) 

Red snapper was once a very bountiful fish and it’s stock numbers more than filled the Gulf. It was that bounty that led to snapper dishes of every kind becoming mainstays at seafood restaurants and markets. But then in the 1980s, it was discovered that the population had dropped to concerning numbers, which led to strict conservation efforts that often put conservation groups, regulators and commercial fishermen at odds with each other. Though numbers are in fact rebounding in the Gulf of Mexico, recreational anglers and commercial fishing operations still find themselves at odds over differing viewpoints and regulations. But then, there are poachers.

While smoking a cigarette, Felipe turns to me and asks what would I rather him do, catch fish or smuggle drugs? He insists that he is doing the only job that he knows how to do and has been doing since he was about 12 years old. Felipe now seems to be in his 40s.

“Welcome to where I conduct my work”, he says, as we board the small dingy that will eventually head out towards traditional fishing grounds.

Felipe begins to tell me the method that he uses to track fish. He is no fool.

Felipe listens to his marine radio and gathers fishing reports from other fishermen. He also makes a call to his “ojo” or “eye” who lives in the United States and monitors the comings and going of law enforcement operations from area docks, waterways and even airports. It is an extensive operation and one that Felipe says is well worth the investment.

His extensive network consists of eyes from Corpus Christi to Brownsville and even out in the water. He even admits that he knows of decoy plans that are in place to thwart law enforcement attempts. Tonight, he knows where he is going and he is fully aware that he will be crossing into the United States to take fish that he believes belong to no government.

“You people (American’s) to want to control everything. Even the things that God has given us to survive” he says as he looks at me with disgust. “You do not own the world.”

Though Felipe may have a point, it is the United States that has taken on the battle for ensuring that the red snapper population remains healthy and increases. Between commercial interests, federal agencies, academia and recreational anglers the United States has sank millions of dollars into replenishing the stock that is now being poached from their southern neighbor.

“Just last week, my friend from Tampico was put in jail by the American Coast Guard for fishing. I know that he will be back because right now the American’s are fighting with themselves over who has rights to the fish,” Felipe says.

When asked if he knew of anybody who had died in the small boats, Felipe someberly looks to the sky. “Yes,” he says. Both his brother and nephew were killed in a fishing accident when their boat capsized in Mexican waters about 30 miles offshore in 2017. With that somber note, Felipe and his crew change their minds and tell me that I will have to stay at the dock and wait for their return--whenever that might be.

Meanwhile the story does not stop in Mexico. Back in the United States there is such a thing a recreational poaching that continues to occur, despite state and federal law enforcement actions.

“People pay big bucks for snapper fishing trips and season be damned”, says Mark Zuehl, a former offshore fishing guide now living near New Orleans. “You get offshore and find it’s the wild, wild West, Man.”

“If you're for conservation, then the label your a damn liberal who they believe should be put in prison. I've heard that so many times in recent years," he says.

Zuehl explains how he operated a guide service for over 20 years and the more regulations that went into the snapper industry, the more people would pay to fish. Money was the name of the game and he admits that he willingly participated.

“You had to disguise it, but let me tell you, it was done often and it still goes on today”, Zuehl says over coffee at a popular restaurant in New Orleans.

“With social media in play the rule of ego is taking over and people don’t stop to think that the feds are getting wiser to their enforcement tactics”, he says with a grin. “You go snapper fishing off season and grab you a picture of your girl in a bikini and post it on Facebook and see how fast the feds start watching you.”

Zuehl, who says that he has stopped leading illegal fishing trips offshore and has begun working with biologists to study the popular species.

“Though the Mexican “ponga” boats (as he calls them) are becoming more of problem, the social media ego extension for poaching is nearly just as great”, he says. “Not all recreational fishermen are like this and I’d imagine it’s a very small population who do it, but money talks and bullshit walks.”
The debate in the states is over the amount of red snapper that currently call the Gulf home.

 "We go out there fishing for other species and all we can catch is snapper, because there are so damn many of them”, Ryan Duchesne, a recreational fisherman from near Houston says.

Duchesne insists that regulators are using out of date data to determine the fish stock populations and that state officials and recreational fishermen have a better handle on population numbers than do federal regulators.

“That’s why we love Texas”, Duchesne says. “One state side, we can fish year round. Who in the living Hell can point out in the constitution exactly when and where I can and cannot fish?”

The argument from Duchesne seems to be nearly the same as Felipe's down in Mexico.

Back in Mexico, I meet up with Felipe and his crew who are carrying hand fulls of American money. They tell me that they are paid in both pesos and dollars from buyers who pay huge amounts for their haul.

“You see why I do this”, Felipe tells me.
Catch seized by the United States Coast Guard from a Mexican lancha
boat fishing in American waters this week. (Photo:USCG)

Fielpe has $900 United States Dollars in his possession. Today, I wait as he walks into a BBVA Bank in Victoria, Tamaulipas to exchange his $900 dollars for over $17,000 pesos.

Felipe shows off several hundred dollars in American currency
after arriving back from the fish market where buyers will ultimately
send the illegally taken fish back to the USA (Matt Briscoe)

“How much did you make today?” he asks with a grin.

For Felipe, this money will be more than enough to get his wife and 5 children through. To him it is the risk that comes along with being a father. To others, Felipe is nothing more than a poacher.

When asked how many pounds of fish he brought to market on this trip, he looks at me and refuses to answer. But with the amount money that he has in hand, you would have to imagine that he brought in a sizeable haul.

“The USA says we are taking too many fish but look, there are more snappers here than you can count” Felipe says.

One study suggests that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imported into the U.S. comes from illegal or "pirate" fishing. That's a problem, scientists say, because it erodes the ability of governments to limit overfishing and the ability of consumers to know where their food comes from.

Felipe confirms that this might be exactly the case. “A bunch of these fish will go right back into the USA” he says.

Since October 1, 2017, the Coast Guard says that they have interdicted some 58 boat crews in federal waters offshore of Corpus Christi. That number has resulted in over 24,000 pounds of fish being confiscated that were taken illegally.

From red snapper to shark and even the threatened Gulf Sturgeon, poaching is a big problem in the Gulf of Mexico.

“If you boil it down to where the problem lies, it is politics and money”, Zuehl tells me. “For those on the American side it is often political arguments and proving a point. For the Mexicans it is simply home economics.”

But in the end, the debates will still rage, despite which side of the border, or the issue you are on.