Snapper Smugglers Nabbed...Joint Law Enforcement Effort Curtails Illegal Commercial Fishing

When Special Agent Ken Blackburn boarded the Delfin IV in rough seas some 40 miles offshore from Port Mansfield, it was the culmination of weeks of planning and several days of intense surveillance. Blackburn is one of seven elite law enforcement officers patrolling a vast swath of the Gulf of Mexico with the Fisheries division of NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is a branch of the Commerce Department.

"Basically it was a joint enforcement operation with the Coast Guard, Texas Parks and Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries," Blackburn said. "It stemmed from information that we had gotten from a confidential source."

Once on board the commercial long line vessel, Blackburn discovered what he suspected. Hidden beneath a legal catch of grouper and other fish were 2,421 pounds of illegally caught red snapper. The commercial season for red snapper did not begin until May 1 and it was April 30. "They were well aware of what they were doing," Blackburn said. "They had placed those snapper intentionally underneath those grouper to conceal them."

"Based on the information that we got, we put together an operation plan and used several different (staging) platforms including Falcon jets from the United States Coast Guard and a fixed wing dual engine plane from Texas Parks and Wildlife," Blackburn explained. Four long line boats were kept under periodic aerial surveillance. The original plan called for a flotilla of small enforcement boats to venture offshore and board the targeted vessels, but rough seas prevailed, and the sturdy 65 foot Captain Williams of Texas Parks and Wildlife became the primary chase boat.

"All of our agencies are working together down here to get a handle on all this," said Les Casterline, Game Warden with Texas Parks and Wildlife. "We are working jointly, combining information, combining resources. This is just an example of cooperation to conserve the resource."

"Interagency cooperation was the key factor in everything that happened here," added Lt. Charles Hawkins, Commanding Officer of the South Padre Island Station of the United States Coast Guard.

"When we got out there, they had just set out two eight mile long lines," Blackburn said. "We couldn't leave that gear out there as it would continue to fish and kill a lot of fish. So we had to pick up the long line before we came in, and that took eight hours alone just to pick up the miles and miles of long line."

The owner of the 58 foot Delphin IV, Pescalar Mar USA Inc., and its Captain, Ribelino Cruz Mesa of Port Isabel, face charges of fishing prior to commercial red snapper season and exceeding the 2,000 pound trip limit. The entire catch of some 8,500 pounds was sold to a fish wholesaler for $17,519, and the proceeds will be kept in an escrow account until the case is resolved. Technically, they could be charged with a smuggling violation as the fish were caught and concealed inside the Exclusive Economic Zone between 9- 200 miles offshore. "The federal court has already ruled on this, and precedent has been set, it is a smuggling violation." said Special Agent in Charge, Steven Coker.

Coker heads up a six man team of agents that patrol District 3, which encompasses 10 Gulf Coast states from Brownsville to the Mississippi, Alabama line. He explained that he and his law enforcement staff have the option of filing criminal or administrative charges with their cases, and they recently won a criminal conviction against a Galveston based commercial fisherman for concealing and illegally importing red snapper. The concealment charge carries a maximum of five years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000. Tam Le, crewmember aboard the Tam, pleaded guilty in federal court and his sentencing is set for May 19, 2006. A hidden compartment aboard the vessel contained 5,641 pounds of red snapper and more than 2,700 individual fish within the concealed compartments were less than the legal minimum size limit of 15 inches.

"Right now there is a method being used by some illegal fishermen much like narcotic smugglers," Coker said. "They are building false compartments into their vessels, and we have caught three different boats in the Galveston area, and we have several others under surveillance. So far we have dealt only with red snapper, but I think it is only a matter of time before we see other species. Fish has gotten so expensive that we are now dealing with organized crime groups that are figuring out ways to smuggle fish, to conceal fish."

"Red snapper may be $8.00 a pound retail down here in the Valley, but you go to New York and it is going to be $12.00 a pound and you go to Japan and it is going to be $24.00," Blackburn said. "This is the same fish being caught in the Gulf of Mexico, but it is going to all these different places, and it keeps going higher and higher and higher."

"Our job as NOAA Special Agents is to protect the resource and to protect the industry. If you don't protect the fish there won't be any out there for the fishermen to catch The people who are not the violators, those who are doing it legally, the way it should be done and are playing by the rules have nothing to worry about, Coker assured.

The Captain and owner of the Delfin IV are faced with an administrative procedure handled by NOAA general counsel and will be issued a penalty. "They face losing their permit, having their permit sanctioned for a period of time, and they could face fines running into hundreds of thousands of dollars or a combination," Coker said. "We have confiscated boats, but normally we look at prior convictions and what kind of cooperation we have had." If they deny the charges and choose to fight it then the case could go to trial.

Coker and his small staff were extremely busy last year and are handling numerous cases this year. They work to protect marine mammals and enforce compliance with sea turtle excluder devices aboard shrimp trawlers. They also investigate the illegal sale of fish and were instrumental in NOAA issuing an $80,000 fine last year against the owners and operators of the South Padre Island based headboat FV Murphy's Law, Stephen and Matt Murphy. They are alleged to have conducted at least 134 illegal sales of red snapper to local restaurants without correct permits, and have received a 300 day Notice of Permit Sanction. The fine and permit sanction are being contested.

Special Agent Rodolfo "Rudy" Rivera also spearheaded an investigation into former Cameron County Sheriff Conrado Cantu who was fined $2,000 for illegally purchasing red snapper from shrimp boats and importing fish from Mexico for his restaurant business. "We were on our way to meet with him, when it came across our radio that he had been arrested by the FBI on federal corruption charges," Rivera said. "But the fine was paid while he was in prison."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore