MEXICO CITY -- Along the U.S.-Mexico maritime border, the incursions occur almost daily, the U.S. government says. The boats are outfitted with small outboard motors, powerful enough to flee pursuing Border Patrol and Coast Guard vessels.
The Mexican skiffs are loaded not with drugs or migrants, but with red snapper, sea turtles and sharks.
U.S. officials say the threat posed by Mexican fisherman casting their nets illegally in U.S. waters has grown so acute that for the first time in years, they've banned Mexican fishing vessels from entering U.S. ports.
"These vessels ... will be denied port access and services," said Lauren Gaches, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She said the sanction was being applied in response to Mexico's "continued failure to combat unauthorized fishing activities by small hulled vessels in U.S. waters." It took effect Monday.
The U.S. Coast Guard apprehended 208 Mexican fishermen in 78 skiffs for illegal cross-border fishing in the 2021 fiscal year, seizing 15,484 pounds of marine life from the boats.
"It's not infrequent to detain the same offender 10, 20 or 30 times," said Lt. Cmdr. Dan Ippolito, commanding officer of Coast Guard Station South Padre Island in Texas.
The fishermen cast mile-long gill nets in the Gulf of Mexico, targeting sharks whose fins are sliced off and shipped to China and red snapper consumed across North America. Frequently, protected sea turtles are also ensnared in their nets as bycatch.
U.S. officials say they've been asking their Mexican counterparts for years to take action against illegal cross-border fishing, but little was done. By 2020, officials warned that if Mexico didn't do more, the fishermen could be sanctioned.
"Despite Mexico's efforts, these measures have not resulted in any decrease in the number of illegal lancha [boat] incursions into the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone," The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported to Congress last year. "In fact, the number of incursions of Mexican vessels in 2020 was almost double that in 2019."
Mexico's foreign minister said Tuesday that he was working to prevent future incursions but suggested much of the cross-border fishing was accidental.
"Sometimes it is hard to determine the exact line," Marcelo Ebrard told reporters. "It's not something intentional."
Mexico's department of agriculture said it would be "ordering inspection and surveillance in the area" so access to U.S. ports would be restored. "Inter-institutional coordination has been resumed and strengthened," the department said in a statement.
U.S. officials have decried the lack of Mexican surveillance along the maritime border, and the relative ease with which fishermen can cross into U.S. waters, for years. As recently as last week, Texas game wardens patrolling the Gulf of Mexico apprehended three Mexican fisherman in a small blue skiff and confiscated around 500 pounds of illegally caught red snapper.
On a single day in August, U.S. officials intercepted four Mexican skiffs in U.S. waters carrying more than a thousand pounds of shark and more than 300 pounds of red snapper. The Coast Guard has found gill nets as long as five miles, full of protected species.
"We spend the majority of our time combating the illegal fishing issue," Ippolito said.
Many of the fisherman are based on a beach called Playa Bagdad, just a few miles south of the U.S. border on the Gulf of Mexico. The fishermen, many of them migrants from southern Mexico, live in shacks along the beach.
Given the concentration of fishermen along a single stretch of northern Mexico shoreline, many have come to believe they can catch more fish in U.S. waters, but that reasoning carries little scientific weight.
Mexican fishermen who are caught fishing illegally on the U.S. side of the maritime border are typically sent back to Mexico to be prosecuted and fined. But in practice, they're rarely prosecuted. The same fishermen continue returning to place their nets in U.S. waters.
"During the six months ending in February 2021, the United States apprehended 84 repeat offenders," The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported to Congress.
The Coast Guard typically destroys the skiffs it seizes. Some of the confiscated fish end up as feed for the animals at a local Texas zoo.
The environmental group Oceana Mexico said in a statement in January that "Mexico has yet to implement fully" its environmental commitments to implement sustainable fishing practices as required by the U.S.-Mexico Canada free trade pact.
Environmentalists say Mexico's attitude on the Gulf fishing dispute mirrors its lack of effort to stop gill net fishing in the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, that has driven the vaquita marina porpoise to the brink of extinction.
Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.