Quest for shark fins brings Mexican fishermen to American waters

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By Kevin Sieff
Monday, March 21, 2011; 11:28 AM

MATAMOROS, MEXICO - The chase began after darkness descended on this stretch of ocean, where the U.S.-Mexico border cuts through the Gulf of Mexico.

The shark fishermen turned off the lights of their skiff before sneaking north across the border, and the U.S. Coast Guard boat followed suit, leaving six officers to find the target using a single pair of night-vision goggles.

"Those guys are north of the line," said Petty Officer Andrew Watzek, squinting at the 25-foot Mexican skiff and then at a radar screen, where the border is a bold line extending off the coast. "They're definitely in American waters."

Both boats bob quietly, about 100 yards apart, on this cool night in January, until an officer pulls the throttle. The chase is on.

On land, a few miles west, the United States has spent billions of dollars in the past decade to secure its southern border, building 670 miles of fencing and adding more than 10,000 border patrol agents. But just off the coast of south Texas, that border is wide open, unmarked and largely unpatrolled.

The men who cross it at night sometimes carry drugs and immigrants. But overwhelmingly, they're looking for new bounty in American waters: sharks whose fins are bound mostly for China. The global trade in shark fins is worth more than a billion dollars, experts say.

Biologists estimate that Mexican fishermen annually catch more than 50,000 sharks illegally in the United States because the best shark fishing is north of the border.

"They have GPS devices. They know where they are in the gulf and what they're doing. They're violating the sovereignty of American waters," said Lt. Mickey Lalor, whose fleet includes about 70 officers devoted largely to rebuffing shark fishermen.

The chase in January ended like many others - with fishermen taking off for Mexican waters and Coast Guard officers stopping just north of the border, searching for fishing gear they might have left behind.

"It's the same game every day. They chase us, sometimes seizing our boats. And the next day we do it again," said Eric Carillo, whose family runs a small shark fishing business just south of the border in Playa Bagdad, bringing in $5,000 to $10,000 a month. Most of their profits come from fins, but fishermen also sell shark meat to Mexico City markets.

Each year, the Coast Guard apprehends dozens, seizing thousands of dollars in gear. But the fishermen spend less than 24 hours in U.S. custody, and then they are sent back across the border.

This is hardly the first time efforts to patrol U.S. borders have moved offshore. Cartel activity has spiked in the Pacific Ocean, including a fleet of semi-submarines, and boats transporting drugs have been interdicted off the coast of Florida for decades.

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