Operation Shark Fin, a four-day, around-the-clock Texas Parks and Wildlife Department law enforcement effort along the lower Texas Coast, aimed at disrupting trans-national criminal organizations engaged in illegal commercial fishing and other activities in the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande, and Lake Falcon.
In total, it has resulted in the seizure of 17,500 feet of long lines, two vessels and 15 citations or arrests.
More than 50 state game wardens and 10 TPWD patrol vessels participated in the intensive operation, which began Monday and concluded on Friday (March 25 to Feb. 1).
"TPWD game wardens are committed to protecting our natural recourses across the state," said Special Operations Chief Grahame Jones of the TPWD Law Enforcement Division. "Operation Shark Fin focused on the lower coast border region where commercial fishing vessels from Mexico known as 'launchas' enter our state and federal waters illegally. The launcha crews use gill-nets and longlines to catch whatever they can, including many shark species and red drum."
During the special operation, game wardens made contact with 65 vessels, 5 vehicles and 206 people.
Wardens seized two launchas from Mexico (one on the Gulf of Mexico and one on Lake Falcon) and the U.S. Coast Guard seized a third vessel on the Gulf. In addition, wardens seized 17,500 feet of long lines in the Gulf, 6,300 feet of gill-nets in the Rio Grande and Lake Falcon, and 19 abandoned crab traps in the lower Rio Grande.
"In many cases," Jones said, "Mexican waters have been overfished. Because of that, we are now seeing an increasing number of vessels from Mexico illegally fishing in Texas or federal waters."
At one point during the operation, game wardens assisted the Coast Guard, South Padre Island Police and the Cameron County Sheriff's Office in the search for the body of a man believed to have jumped from the Queen Isabella Causeway connecting Port Isabel and South Padre Island. Wardens also assisted one disabled vessel during the operation.
Citations or arrests included four for sport fishing violations; two commercial fishing violations (possession of headed/tailed snapper, fillets seized from shrimp boat); two drug-related arrests; three alcohol-related arrests; and two local warrant arrests. In addition, two juvenile runaways were located.
Fish recovered from illegal longlines and gill-nets included Atlantic sharpnose sharks, black tip sharks, and red drum.
"TPWD is extremely appreciative of the long-term efforts by the U.S. Coast Guard in combating illicit commercial fishing activities in the Gulf," Jones said, "particularly commercial vessels from Mexico which routinely fish state and federal waters using illegal long lines and gill nets."
Sharks, the most common target of these vessels, are harvested not only for their meat, but also for their fins. Shark fins, used for soup, are considered some of the world's most expensive seafood and high demand for it supports a world-wide black market.
Arrests in gill-netting or longline cases are rare. When commercial fishermen from Mexico are caught in the act in Texas or U.S. waters, the only charges that can be filed are misdemeanors punishable by fines. However, the illegal fishing equipment and vessel can be seized.
Marine interests spotting gill-nets or longlines in Texas waters are urged to call the Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-792-GAME (4263), contact a game warden or notify the U.S. Coast Guard.