February 10, 2022
CEO Note: Mexico must act swiftly on illegal fishing, following new sanctions from United States
BY: Andy Sharpless
This week, the United States officially closed its ports to Mexican fishing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico after repeated instances of illegal fishing in U.S. waters. They are now prohibited from entering U.S. ports and from receiving any port services.
These new sanctions come after the U.S. negatively certified Mexico in 2021 for failing to take concrete action against small vessels fishing illegally in U.S. Gulf of Mexico waters. Mexico was also identified for the same issue in 2015 and 2017. Many of the vessels flagged for illegal fishing were using prohibited long lines to catch red snapper. Long lines are a type of gear that is suspended in the water or set along the seafloor with baited hooks and can catch a variety of marine life unintentionally, including sea turtles, dolphins, and small whales.
Red snapper is a prized commercial and recreational fishery in both U.S. and Mexico waters, important to both countries’ economies. The species has been the subject of decades of difficult conservation and management under the U.S. Magnuson-Stevens Act. The U.S. stock is rebuilding thanks to catch limits, accountability, and bycatch management, but now attracts illegal fishing. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, there are an estimated 1,138 illegal incursions from Mexican vessels fishing every year, most likely targeting red snapper. Over 1.5 million pounds of red snapper were poached in U.S. waters by Mexican vessels in the last two years.
These are not the first sanctions Mexico has faced from the United States. In April 2021, Mexico was barred from exporting shrimp to the U.S. after instances were detected of Mexican vessels fishing for shrimp without using Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), which allow sea turtles, many of which are endangered, to escape fishing nets. Oceana’s campaigning in 2019 helped ensure more than 1,000 TEDs were deployed in U.S. shrimp trawls, which has helped save as many as 1,150 endangered and threatened sea turtles every year.
These instances of illegal fishing hurt honest fishermen and other workers in Mexico and the U.S. who play by the rules. They also help contribute to overfishing and the decline in health of Gulf of Mexico waters. An estimated four out of 10 fish species in Mexico are overexploited, including the red snapper, according to Oceana’s fishery audit in Mexico. The Mexican government has a lot of work to do to combat illegal fishing, restore its oceans, and regain access to its most important fishing partner. Most urgently, it needs to develop a strong traceability standard that will facilitate tracking of fish from when it’s caught on the boat all the way to the consumer’s plate.
Oceana, along with our allies, helped the Mexican fisheries agency, CONAPESCA, develop a traceability proposal in 2019, which would allow for this boat-to-plate traceability, but after much progress, the proposal stalled in March 2021 and CONAPESCA has yet to move it forward.
Following the announcement of the new sanctions, Oceana’s team in Mexico sent a series of letters to the Fisheries Commission, the Secretary of Economy, and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, requesting a meeting to address the issue and to ensure actions are taken to obtain a positive certification from the U.S, including approving a Traceability Standard. The Mexican government cannot continue to drag its feet and must take swift action to restore this essential part of its economy and ensure responsible fisheries management.
On the other side of the world, Oceana’s team in the Philippines and its fisherfolk allies continue to fight illegal commercial fishing in municipal waters. Oceana helped establish regulations in 2020 that require vessel monitoring onboard commercial fishing vessels. Only 50% of the commercial fishing vessels, however, have installed the proper devices. Oceana is campaigning for the swift and full implementation of the law and encouraging the government to revoke the licenses of commercial fishing vessels that repeatedly fish illegally in municipal waters.
Oceana continues to campaign in strategic countries around the world to ensure illegal fishing isn’t allowed to fly under the radar. A more transparent ocean will bolster the economy, help restore abundant oceans, and ensure honest fishermen have a fair shot at improving their livelihoods and feeding their families.