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U.S. fishermen call for stronger illegal fishing policies and enforcement

Foreign illegal fishing in the Gulf, mostly by Mexican crew in boats called lanchas, is a persistent -- and alarming -- problem, say authorities from Gulf Coast states and the federal government.

The urgency of the issue brought together a diverse group of stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishermen, state and federal fisheries enforcers and elected officials, August 18 at Texas A&M University in Galveston for a summit on how best to combat illegal fishing. The event was hosted by the Gulf Coast Leadership Conference.

Commercial and recreational fisheries are an economic engine in the Gulf of Mexico, providing jobs, tourism, state revenue and sustainable seafood. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Gulf of Mexico's commercial and recreational fishing industries support more than 168,000 jobs and contribute $13.7 billion annually to the region's economy. 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.

Aside from the theft of the fish, so-called pirate fishers show stark disregard for the marine environment, often by setting miles-long nets or lines that indiscriminately kill marine life, including endangered turtles and other imperiled species.

A key tool to solving illegal fishing is federal legislation that will tighten the net on illegal fishing operations. On April 3 the U.S., in a unanimous bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate approved the Port State Measures Agreement, which would strengthen and harmonize port inspection standards for foreign flagged fishing vessels. But the agreement cannot take effect unless the House of Representatives passes legislation to implement the pact.

During some chases in the Gulf, fleeing crews have shot at law enforcement officers, hoping to create enough of a head start so that they can fish another day. Even those who get caught face relatively light consequences: confiscation of their boat and repatriation to Mexico, which appears to be little deterrent. Experts told of the same illegal fishermen getting caught eight times.

Scott Hickman, a board advisor with the Charter Fishermen's Association, said foreign illegal fishing is "the number one topic" among the association's South Texas contingent. Illegal fishers "are taking the ability from the charter industry to make a living. Our members see it every day. We need somebody guarding the fence."

The challenge for U.S. authorities is clear: clamp down on the illegal fishing that is happening now, and implement policies that better prevent it from occurring in the future.  


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