This is an expanded version of a radio and online report published in August by NPR. The author, John Burnett, lives in Austin and works as NPR’s Southwest correspondent.

After motoring around the Gulf all afternoon, we finally found them—a big column of red snapper feeding at a reef about twenty miles northeast of South Padre Island. Our party of six started reeling in eight-pounders one after the other. Most of us didn’t know much about fishing. It didn’t matter. The plump, rose-colored fish struck our menhaden bait again and again, and fought all the way to the surface, making us feel like stars on a TV fishing show.

Our charter captain, Michael Walker, smiled from his perch on the flybridge. “Everybody loves snapper,” he said, his shades reflecting the pinkening dusk. “They’re tasty, abundant, easy to catch. They’ve made me a lot of money. And you don’t have to go very far to catch ’em. Texas has some of the best bottom-fishing in the world.”

Our trip was a glimpse into the world of Lutjanus campechanus—the most profitable, most regulated, most fought-over fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Just how prized is red snapper? The Gulf snapper with jumbo lump crab at Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse in Houston goes for $45. At Central Markets across Texas, fresh American red snapper fillets sell for $27.99 per pound—topping the price of choice Angus ribeye.

Snapper is so lucrative that it has given rise to an extensive poaching industry in the lower Texas Gulf. For years, Mexican fishermen based several miles south of the Rio Grande have motored into U.S. waters on boats called lanchas, set out long lines and nets, and hauled out countless tons of snapper, to be sold in Mexico or exported back to the United States. U.S. officials say the illegal trade is supported by the Gulf Cartel, a criminal enterprise based in Tamaulipas State that depends on some of the same boatmen to run drugs north. The plunder of snapper, and the needless killing of bycatch such as turtles and sharks, infuriates Texas fishermen, marine biologists, and ocean conservationists who have worked for decades to bring back the species. Meanwhile, the brazen incursions by Mexican skiffs carrying fish and narcotics in U.S. waters are bedeviling the U.S. Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which regulates fisheries.

Captain Michael Walker on his charter boat in South Padre Island on June 8, 2021.
Captain Michael Walker on his charter boat on June 8, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

This year, NOAA had enough. In its biennial Report to Congress, Improving International Fisheries Management, the agency negatively certified Mexico for “illegal, unreported, and unregulated” fishing in U.S. territorial waters. NOAA also chided China, Costa Rica, Guyana, the Russian Federation, Senegal, and Taiwan in the report, but Mexico was the only nation to receive a formal sanction, which includes restrictions on Mexican fishing vessels using U.S. ports. But the impact of that measure will be slight, as few such vessels dock in the United States.

The NOAA decertification could lead to restrictions on Mexican seafood imports to the U.S. market, but that would require President Biden’s sign-off. Because the United States counts on strong relations with Mexico around trade policy and immigration enforcement, it’s doubtful Biden would risk antagonizing our Southern neighbor over snapper, just for the sake of Texas fishermen.

“This has been a long-standing and somewhat intractable problem with the lancha vessels fishing illegally in the U.S.,” Alexa Cole, NOAA’s acting deputy assistant secretary for international fisheries, said in a call with reporters. “Unfortunately, in 2018, 2019, and 2020, what we’re seeing is an increase . . . in the number of lancha incursions and recidivists.”

For years, lanchas—25-foot, open-hull vessels usually powered by 75-horsepower outboard motors and carrying two to four fishermen—have snuck across the international maritime boundary to haul out snapper and shark (prized for their fins) then skedaddle back to Mexico. For the Coast Guard’s South Padre station, interdicting the poachers has become the primary law enforcement mission. In 2010, Coast Guard crews in fast-pursuit boats intercepted nine lanchas; in 2020—the busiest year ever—they apprehended 138 vessels and detained 278 repeat offenders.

Even though the Coast Guard impounds the boats and motors, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea protects foreign fishermen from being jailed in countries outside of their own. Under this agreement, after the Coast Guard catches pescadores in U.S. waters, they are sent home, only to come right back with new boats. Texas fishermen and law enforcement officials have long suspected that the Gulf Cartel replaces the poachers’ seized lanchas. In return, the cartel depends on these same fishing boats to transport drugs into the Texas Gulf to smuggle onshore.

Mike Vigil, a retired DEA official who spent 31 years with the agency, including a stint as its chief of international operations, confirmed the cartel’s involvement. Some Mexican snapper fishermen, he said, perform double duty as drug smugglers in the western Gulf—which has seen a recent increase in packages of cocaine washing up on Texas beaches. “The Gulf Cartel looks at [replacing the lanchas] as an inexpensive investment in support of their drug-trafficking activities,” said Vigil, who maintains contacts within Mexico’s federal security forces. “They want the fishermen to have reliable and seaworthy boats to avoid losing million-dollar loads of cocaine.”

Boats in the South Padre Island U.S. Coast Guard Station's lancha graveyard.
Boats in the South Padre Island U.S. Coast Guard Station’s lancha graveyard on June 9, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

There are 197 U.S. Coast Guard stations along the nation’s shoreline. Only the South Padre station has a lancha graveyard. “These are the boats waiting to be destroyed,” said Lieutenant Commander Dan Ippolito, the station’s soft-spoken, 34-year-old chief. Under a broiling June sun, he showed me thirty fiberglass boats lying side by side in a locked, fenced compound next to the station. The seizure date of each vessel was spray-painted on its bow. Under U.S. State Department policy, the Coast Guard has to hold the boats for 45 days to give Mexican authorities a chance to claim them. “They never have since I’ve been here,” Ippolito said dryly. If they’re not reclaimed, the Coast Guard has them cut apart and dumped at a landfill to discourage illegal fishing.

“They’ve overfished their water,” Ippolito said. “There’s an invisible line dividing their water and ours. They have more success in our water because we stringently regulate our fisheries here and our fish are bigger. They take advantage of that.”

With five thousand square miles of poaching grounds to patrol—a vast swath of water that stretches from the Rio Grande north to Baffin Bay and extends far out into the Gulf—Ippolito estimates that Coast Guard pursuit boats detect only a fraction of all incursions. Moreover, the lanchas often travel in groups of three or four, so when the Coast Guard catches one, the other boats often zoom away. Illegal fishing vessels off the Texas Gulf can also be apprehended by game wardens with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. In the last two years, TPWD says, it turned back 45 lanchas and seized more than 37 miles of gill nets and long lines. 

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Dan Ippolito in South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.
U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Commander Dan Ippolito in South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

The lanchas are well suited for their illicit forays. Some boats can hold as many as three thousand pounds of fish, and they’re highly maneuverable in the hands of a skilled captain. “They’re very experienced boat drivers,” said Ippolito. Many reports of lanchas come from Coast Guard spotter planes and from Texas fishermen on the water. But even when the boats’ precise locations are known, they can be elusive. “The lanchas can move fast,” Ippolito said. “They’re not easy to see. They’ve got a low profile—they’re white with blue insides—and they blend in with the seas. It looks like a wave on the horizon.”

When a lancha is caught, the Coast Guard detains the crew and confiscates its catch. (Coasties used to toss dead snapper into the sea, but under a new program they donate the fish to Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre to feed the injured sea creatures in the nonprofit’s care, and to Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville as snacks for the nurse sharks.)

For most poachers, getting nabbed is a minor inconvenience. On average, every Mexican fisherman the Coast Guard detains has been apprehended seven times, according to NOAA. In 2019 and 2020, 87 percent of all lancheros caught in the Gulf were repeat offenders. In August, they caught one fisherman who’d been busted 32 times. “One guy we caught had a cut on his hand and our duty corpsman patched him up,” Ippolito remembered. “We caught him a week later, he still had the same bandage on, and he asked for a clean bandage.”

The United Nations treaty that protects Mexican poachers from facing U.S. criminal charges for unauthorized fishing rankles stakeholders from the marinas on South Padre to the halls of Washington, D.C. But a senior NOAA official, who spoke on background because he was not authorized to speak for the agency, said that a harsher policy might backfire. “Would we want San Diego fishermen held in a Tijuana jail?” he asked.

That means the Coast Guard’s hands are effectively tied. When they intercept a lancha, they take the crew back to the station and write up a “case package” for the incident, which includes the fishermen’s identities, where they were apprehended, and how many fish they had on board. From 2018 to 2020, the State Department sent 248 cases to Mexico for prosecution, according to NOAA. Mexican officials say they’ve fined numerous offenders, but their efforts have had little effect. “For a long time, we’ve tried to figure out how to make ’em stop,” said the NOAA official, “and the Mexican government never did anything.”

Finally, the Coast Guard turns the poachers over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a criminal background check, and as long as they aren’t wanted for another crime in U.S. territory, they’re released on the international bridge in Brownsville, where they stroll back over to Matamoros. An exception exists for fishermen who ignore Coast Guard orders to stop their boats on the water—they can be charged with a federal offense known as “failure to heave to.”

The impunity enjoyed by most rogue fishermen leads to the mass slaughter of marine life. Last year, the Coast Guard seized more than 37 tons of illegally caught fish from lanchas, up from less than three and a half tons in 2017. Maritime law enforcement and recreational fishermen regularly find poachers’ fishing gear floating in the water, some with thousands of pounds of dead or dying sea creatures hooked on illegal longlines and entangled in gill nets attached to buoys. “We’ve had crews pull four to five miles of gill net,” said USCG first class petty officer Erin Welch. “It can take them half a day to pull it on board. One of the Coast Guard’s missions is to protect living marine resources. We find sea turtles that get all wrapped up in the nets. It’s disheartening.”

In 2011, Texas Parks & Wildlife game wardens found a nearly three-mile-long gill net that had caught roughly three thousand juvenile sharks. Shark poaching—with the fins destined for sale in Asian nations as an ingredient in soup—is a worldwide problem even worse than illegal red snapper fishing. And marine biologists say the illegal taking of sharks is especially damaging to the Gulf because removing these predators throws the whole ocean food chain out of balance.

The treatment of Mexican snapper poachers presents a raw double standard in how federal and state authorities defend the land border versus the sea border. Under past Democratic and Republican administrations in Washington, unauthorized immigrants who were caught twice on U.S. soil had committed a federal felony, and they could be locked up in an immigrant detention facility for as long as two years. This summer, Governor Greg Abbott dispatched hundreds of state troopers to the border to arrest illegal crossers—more than a thousand have been sent to a state prison for misdemeanor trespassing. In contrast, a foreign fisherman who illegally enters the Texas Gulf and is repeatedly caught red-handed stealing U.S. natural resources will be deported with few consequences.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat returns to shore in South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.
A U.S. Coast Guard boat returns to shore in South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

The Gulf Cartel’s support for the poaching operation became obvious once I visited the home of the illegal red snapper fleet. Playa Bagdad, located nine miles south of the mouth of the Rio Grande in Tamaulipas, is also the turf of the Gulf Cartel and its factions. The miles-long stretch of coast has a history steeped in criminality and contraband. During the American Civil War, Southern cotton merchants sent their bales through Matamoros to Playa Bagdad to avoid the Union blockade on Texas ports. European cargo ships would anchor off the Mexican coast, waiting for loads of smuggled cotton. But some freight vessels weren’t so lucky. According to legend, they were pillaged by bandits who lived along the backshore. The name Bagdad is thought to have originated as an oblique reference to the Thieves of Baghdad in Arabic folklore

Today, Bagdad Beach is the province of snapper poachers and drug runners. One Friday afternoon last summer, I drove there with a Matamoros-born journalist named Enrique. At the security checkpoint under the “Bienvenidos Playa Bagdad” sign, a stern policeman demanded to know if we were bringing alcohol to the beach. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some Mexican authorities had forbidden public drinking to discourage large gatherings. The cabañas and tables where you could usually find matamorenses enjoying a cold beer and a plate of ceviche were nearly empty. As we drove onto the sand, tractors were pulling fishing boats out of the water. “We need to be cautious,” Enrique advised. “The cartel controls the beach.”

The transition was as stark as any along the Texas-Mexico borderlands: from the high-rise condos and orderly marinas of South Padre to this seaside shantytown of about four hundred fishermen and one hundred lanchas. Scattered around the dwellings of unpainted plywood were piles of yellow marine rope, monofilament netting, propellers, anchors, outboard parts, fuel jugs, and boxes of bait fish, pungent in the heavy coastal air. Scrawny yellow dogs dozed in the shade. Young fishermen in Day-Glo overalls unloaded their meager catch.

Idelfonso Carrillo in Playa Bagdad on June TK, 2021.
Idelfonso Carrillo in Playa Bagdad, Tamaulipas, Mexico on June 11, 2021.Photograph by Enrique Lerma

A hand-lettered sign outside one shack advertised fish for sale. At the top was huachinango—red snapper. “El huachinango es el mejor en precio y sabor,” said Idelfonso Carrillo, a lifelong fisherman who warily agreed to answer a few questions. “Snapper is the best in price and taste.” He was reclining in a hammock on his front porch after a day on the water, wearing a Jordan brand T-shirt. Carrillo told me he’s 44, originally from Veracruz, and the owner of six boats with a workforce of some twenty deckhands. If you want to survive, you have to fish “up there,” he said matter-of-factly, jutting his chin northward. “But you run the risk of losing your boat and everything.” Carrillo said he’s been caught by the Coast Guard three times, and each time he lost a boat and motor he spent around $15,000 to replace them.

I looked into one of his ice boxes and saw a batch of juvenile snapper, none longer than twelve inches, a size that is illegal to catch in both U.S. and Mexican waters. “Here, there are practically no controls over the fishery like you have,” Carrillo said. “And we’re using up all our fish.”

I thanked him and drifted over to watch a paunchy man wearing a camouflage hat, Crocs, and Hawaiian shorts peel the plastic off a new Yamaha outboard motor. His boat was brand-new, too. When I asked him about it, he gave me the stink eye and didn’t respond. “I think it’s time to go,” Enrique said, as he noticed that more and more fishermen were watching us. “It’s getting tense.”   

I did not ask Carrillo if the cartel had replaced his seized boats. He wouldn’t have told me anyway. But some quick back-of-the-envelope math speaks for itself. If a new boat and motor cost him $15,000, and on a good night he brings back 1,500 pounds of snapper and sells it to a fish broker for $2 a pound, then he would clear $3,000 before expenses. So it would take at least five successful trips just to replace his lost equipment, and some fishermen have forfeited multiple boats.

When I got back to Texas, I tracked down a man who lives in Matamoros and has worked around the fishing trade on Playa Bagdad his whole life. He agreed to speak over the phone but asked to remain anonymous because he feared retribution from the cartel. “The [fishermen] are not millionaires who can just go out and buy a new boat,” he told me. “There are other interests.” If impounding boats doesn’t work, then how might the U.S. government curtail illegal fishing? “You are the most powerful country in the world!” he said. “Lock those cabrones up in jail for a year and I guarantee they won’t come back here and cross again.”

A U.S. Coast Guard keeps an eye on a boat behind them in South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.
A U.S. Coast Guardsman keeps an eye on a boat while patrolling the Gulf on June 9, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

For years, U.S. law enforcement has pinpointed Playa Bagdad as a haven for the Gulf Cartel, whose criminal portfolio includes drug and human smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, and gasoline piracy. Founded in the 1930s to profit from the cross-border smuggling of alcohol during the waning years of Prohibition, the Gulf Cartel is one of the oldest crime syndicates in Mexico. Its factions currently control the coastal zones of Tamaulipas, including Matamoros and Playa Bagdad.

“It’s definitely a hub for the cartel because of the geographic nature of it,” said Daniel Comeaux, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Houston field division. “Lanchas are leaving Playa Bagdad driven by fishermen who are smuggling drugs into the South Texas coastal area.” The Coast Guard acknowledges it, too, stating in a September press release that in addition to their use for illegal fishing, “lanchas are frequently used to transport illegal narcotics to the U.S.”

Comeaux said the fishermen make quick money working for the cartel. “It’s like a Mexican truck driver who’s trying to make ends meet driving legitimate loads,” he said. “And they’re approached by a drug cartel that says, ‘Hey, slide this hundred kilos in and we’ll pay you more on one trip than you’ve made in the last six months.’ ” Vigil, the former DEA official, said the fishermen who agree to run drugs only do it part-time. “They do illegal fishing,” he said, “and when the situation presents itself—let’s say the cartel brings in a load of cocaine—then they get involved.” Some fishermen want nothing to do with it. “People are leaving Bagdad because they don’t want to be involved with the drugs,” said my source in Matamoros.

Among constantly shifting smuggling patterns, Playa Bagdad became an important staging area for cocaine entering the United States from South America in the 1980s, after federal agents tightened enforcement around the seagoing routes to South Florida. “One thing about the Gulf Cartel,” Vigil said, “they find areas they can use for drug smuggling that are points of least resistance, where there’s not a lot of individuals who are going to screw with their loads. Bagdad has a long coastline, and there’s really no government presence there.” (Except, of course, the policeman who asked if we had any beer.)

The Gulf Cartel depends on a couple of income streams from Playa Bagdad. First, they collect cuotas, or tributes, from the fishermen, just as they do from shop owners and dentists, prostitutes and human smugglers, and just about any other income generators in Matamoros. But the real money comes from narcotics smuggling.  

The rise in red snapper poaching parallels an uptick in the use of the Gulf of Mexico to smuggle marijuana and cocaine to the U.S. coastline. According to the DEA, 79 waterproof packages of cocaine and marijuana washed up on Texas shores from Matagorda to the Sabine River between April and June of this year; that compares to 8 wash-ups in all of 2020. Separately, Padre Island National Seashore reported 20 wash-ups of drug packages in 2020 and ’21, compared to 6 in 2017 and ’18. Just last Friday, a barnacle-encrusted blue barrel containing 220 pounds of marijuana in 138 duct-taped packages turned up on the beach of a county park north of the City of South Padre Island, according to Cameron County Chief Deputy Park Ranger Richard Fuentes.

So many drug packages have washed ashore in Matagorda County that the sheriff’s office has deputies patrol the beach regularly in search of suspicious bundles. And it’s not just Texas beaches. Last May, beachgoers in Fort Morgan, Alabama, stumbled onto bricks of cocaine, one of which was decorated with a photo of the late Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Authorities are at a loss to explain the recent surge in the number of drug packages bobbing in the Gulf’s warm swells, amid the sargassum weed and jellyfish. There are several likely scenarios, though, and many involve complicit fishermen. Vigil suggested that drug planes could be flying into U.S. airspace and dropping their packages into the Gulf, where lancheros retrieve and then deposit them on lonely Texas beaches, to be speedily collected by onshore traffickers. Or, the lanchas could be motoring into the Gulf and transferring cargo to Texas-based drug boats that ferry it back to shore. The wash-ups could also be coming from lancheros who dump their loads overboard while being pursued by the Coast Guard, or from boats that capsize in bad weather. A Matagorda County narcotics investigator told me some of the bricks they found had been in the water so long they were covered in barnacles.

Whatever the smuggling stratagem, Comeaux speculated that pandemic-related public health rules at the border have restricted so much traffic at U.S. ports of entry that it might have forced the smugglers out to sea.

Alfonso “Dirty Al” and son Cameron Salazar at Dirty Al's in South Padre Island on June 10, 2021.
Alfonso “Dirty Al” and son Cameron Salazar at Dirty Al’s in South Padre Island on June 10, 2021. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Fried red snapper served over a bed of fries at Dirty Al's in South Padre Island on June 10, 2021.
Fried red snapper served over a bed of fries at Dirty Al’s in South Padre Island. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Left: Alfonso “Dirty Al” and son Cameron Salazar at Dirty Al’s in South Padre Island on June 10, 2021. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Top: Fried red snapper served over a bed of fries at Dirty Al’s in South Padre Island. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Some of the snapper that the lancheros poach from U.S. waters ends up in restaurants in Mexico City, but it’s likely that a hefty portion of it makes a U-turn and is sold back to buyers in the United States, where the illicit catch is cutting into the profits of Texas fishermen.

Alfonso “Dirty Al” Salazar has the kind of bootstrap story that garners respect on South Padre. He opened a bait shop, then started serving breakfast tacos to his customers, and eventually his bait stand became the original Dirty Al’s. Now the Salazar family owns nine seafood restaurants throughout the Rio Grande Valley and on the island. Al’s son, Cameron, managing chef for the chain, told me they sell 30,000 pounds of snapper a year—as much as they can acquire. “Snapper is just a really, really good fish,” he said, sitting at a table with his dad near Sea Ranch Marina. “You can do anything with it. You can make a ceviche with it. You can do poke. We grill it, blacken it, fry it, bake it in the oven, wrap it in foil. I’m starting to sound like Bubba in Forrest Gump.”

In 2020, the United States imported about 7,500 tons of red snapper from Mexico, with a retail value of about $50 million, according to NOAA. Imported seafood undergoes routine inspection at the border, but NOAA’s protocols have no means of determining the provenance of refrigerated fish trucked in from Mexico. In its 2019 Report to Congress, NOAA warned “that these imports may include fish harvested illegally in U.S. waters.”

Cameron Salazar suspects as much. “You’ll know the Mexican snapper because they’re all small—one- and two-pounders,” he said, holding his hands about a foot apart. “The ones we get here are monsters. You know, five- and ten-pounders.” He doubled the distance between his hands. “That’s when you know it’s an American snapper. So if the Mexican truck comes in with five- and ten-pounders, I’d believe it if you told me they were poached. You know they didn’t come out of Mexican water because they [no longer] have fish that big.”

Sometimes, when the company’s Texas supplier can’t provide enough snapper for Salazar’s restaurants, he’ll buy from a Mexican wholesaler. I asked if he worries that buying snapper he suspects was poached contributes to the depredation of marine life in the Gulf. “It does bother me,” he said. “But the bottom line is I don’t know what boat it came off.” These days, Mexican red snapper sells wholesale for one to two dollars a pound cheaper than U.S.-caught snapper. The price difference is one of the pressures that has pushed almost all commercial snapper fishing out of the lower Texas Gulf, according to fishermen I interviewed. The state’s remaining large commercial snapper outfits are based farther up the coast.

Brothers Patrick and Stephen Murphy run a South Padre deep-sea fishing charter company their grandfather started in 1961. Throughout much of the business’s sixty years of existence, the Murphys also operated a commercial snapper boat. Now the brothers still take out sport anglers and dolphin watchers, but they gave up the snapper boat nine years ago. “You’re fishing offshore, competing for snapper against the lanchas, and then, of course, you’re competing against the price whenever they sell the fish,” Patrick said, as customers gathered on his dock for the next excursion. “It’s kind of a messed-up deal.”  

Red Snapper caught on a charter led by Captain Michael Walker in South Padre Island on June 8, 2021.
Red Snapper caught on a charter led by Captain Michael Walker on June 8, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Texans love their red snapper. According to one estimate, forty percent of all snapper harvested from the Gulf, from Brownsville to Key West, Florida, ends up on Texas plates. How that fish gets caught has been the subject of a decades-long battle royale between commercial fishermen, sport anglers, conservationists, and regulators.

By the late 1980s, excessive harvesting had reduced the snapper population on the U.S. side of the Gulf to an unsustainable low. Amid warnings from biologists that the fishery could collapse, NOAA began to reduce the snapper quota for commercial and sport fishermen over the next three decades. By 2017, federal regulations had shrunk the snapper season to just 72 hours for private anglers, though the Trump administration later extended it. By then, however, the quotas had done their job. Gulf snapper was on the rebound, and as anglers kept seeing more and bigger fish throughout the 2010s, they began to complain that NOAA was overprotecting and undercounting the fish.

The species is so vital to the Gulf of Mexico that Congress allocated $9.5 million in 2017 to produce the majestically titled Great Red Snapper Count—an independent inventory intended to establish a thorough and detailed projection of “snapper abundance.” In March, when the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi released a version of the report, its findings hit stakeholders like a tsunami. The count roughly tripled NOAA’s latest estimate of snapper swimming in U.S. waters to 110 million fish aged two years and older. Typically, snapper that age weigh more than two pounds and measure longer than a foot.

Greg Stunz, lead author of the report and arguably the country’s foremost authority on Lutjanus campechanus, warned that rampant poaching from Mexico threatened progress made on the U.S. side of the Gulf. “In general, we have made big sacrifices to restore the red snapper fishery,” he said. “There’s been horrendous battles. It’s come at a high political cost, a high monetary cost, there’s been a lot of conflict and loss of business. Now it’s a slap in the face to go through all that and have these fish going out the back door for folks who’ve overfished their waters.”

The Gulf’s most influential and identifiable snapper fisherman has also lost business to the lanchas. When I approached Buddy Guindon at his slip in the Galveston Yacht Basin, the 65-year-old glanced up at me with his white seafarer’s beard and a what-the-hell-do-you-want expression. According to Guindon, a quarter of all red snapper caught in U.S. territory in the Gulf—nearly two million pounds—passes through his businesses, Katie’s Seafood Market and Katie’s Seafood House, which are both named after his wife. His product is sold at Central Markets, H-E-Bs, and to wholesalers around the nation.

Guindon guarantees that every fish he sells was legally and domestically harvested through Gulf Wild, a program started by a regional alliance of commercial fishermen. Every Gulf Wild fish is tagged with a QR code that indicates who caught it and where it was hooked. By contrast, it’s impossible to tell if a snapper imported from Mexico came from waters off Tampico or if it was snared near the reefs off South Padre and sold back to American buyers. “If you’re going to come up here and harvest some red snapper and run back to Mexico and unload them, where’s the closest market? Right here in Texas,” Guindon said. “The snapper out of Mexico . . . sews up some markets and hurts our pricing structure because they’re going to come in under our price just to get them sold.”

The sun sets over South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.
The sun sets over South Padre Island on June 9, 2021.Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

If the past is prologue, NOAA’s recent decision to decertify Mexico over its inability or unwillingness to curb illegal fishing on Playa Bagdad will produce few tangible results. In the agency’s four previous biennial reports, stretching back to 2013, Mexico was identified as having vessels engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. In fact, Mexico was decertified in 2017 for not doing enough to stop poaching, only to regain certification in 2019 and then be decertified again this year.

A pattern has emerged: Every year, the U.S. government sends specific complaints to the Mexican Embassy in Washington and the Comisión Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca in Mazatlán. And every year, Mexican authorities solemnly assure their U.S. counterparts that they are cracking down. In June 2020, then Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross told Gulf fishery advocates that Mexico “has made notable progress in taking responsibility for the illegal activities of its vessels.” He noted that U.S. officials expected increased Mexican law enforcement on beaches used by lanchas, better monitoring of vessel registry laws, sea patrols along the maritime boundary, and ongoing efforts to prosecute and fine Mexican nationals caught filching fish from U.S. waters. But nothing changes.

NOAA’s punitive action against Mexico lacks teeth. The agency talks tough when it says it will deny Mexican fishing vessels access to U.S. ports and potentially restrict access of Mexican fish products to the U.S. market. But in reality, only a few Mexican shrimpers refuel at U.S. ports, and the threat to cut off fish imports is largely empty. “Import restrictions must go to the president for his approval and at this stage we have not put forward any recommendations,” Cole, the NOAA deputy assistant secretary, said.

The 2021 report says that in order to recertify Mexico, NOAA will be looking for “a measurable decrease in the volume of Mexican lancha incursions into U.S. waters, as well as in the number of repeat offenders.” The Mexican Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for an interview.

Both Republican senators from Texas, responding to questions from Texas Monthly, say they are well aware of the poaching problem and that they want to see stronger actions taken by the federal government. Ted Cruz said current assets on the water are “woefully inadequate,” the poachers know this, and the United States should commit more resources to policing its maritime boundary in the Gulf. Cruz advocates tougher enforcement measures, such as blocking the importation of illegally harvested red snapper and imprisoning lancha captains when they’re caught. John Cornyn’s office said he supports legislation that would direct the U.S. trade representative to work with Mexico to stop illegal seafood exports. Congressman Filemon Vela, whose district includes South Padre, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Even before NOAA released its report, the number of lancha interdictions had dropped this year. Between patrol boats and a cutter that periodically prowls the lower Gulf, the Coast Guard apprehended 74 lanchas from October 2020 through September 2021. That’s more in line with the annual number of interceptions before 2020—still high, but Ippolito hopes the aggressive enforcement may finally be having an effect on illegal fishing.

Back on Playa Bagdad, though, it seems not much has changed. Fishermen guffaw at the notion that the Mexican government would act on its annual promises to take action against the red snapper pirates. “No hay vigilancia de nada,” said lanchero Carrillo. “There’s no enforcement at all out here.”