Blood Treasure

A Mexican shark fisherman lives to tell the tale of an illegal industry gone overboard.
by Published on

On the morning of March 10, Andres Hernandez crawled ashore on South Padre Island, spitting saltwater and blood onto the sand. His clothes were soaked, torn, falling off his slim frame. He tried to get the attention of tourists sunbathing on the beach, but they ignored him.

“They thought I was drunk,” he recalls. “They looked the other way.”

Hernandez, 43, had swum for 11 hours after his small fishing boat capsized in the Gulf of Mexico around midnight. In the darkness, he and two other fishermen flailed amongst their catch: more than 100 bloodied sharks, some still struggling for life. “I was sure we were going to be eaten,” Hernandez says.

He paddled frantically, not sure if he was moving closer to land or farther out to sea. Within minutes, he’d lost sight of the other fishermen and the sharks.

Around 11 a.m., Hernandez stumbled toward the island’s high-rises, squinting at crowds of spring-breakers. He needed to tell someone that his friends were still lost at sea, that he desperately needed help. Hernandez also feared he would have to answer a question that could complicate everything: What was he doing in American waters?

Hernandez lives on Playa Bagdad, a beach just south of the U.S.-Mexico border, where 25-foot fishing boats called lanchas and ramshackle huts line the shore. In front of his one-room shanty, dogs pick at discarded shark carcasses. A few hours before it sank, Hernandez’s lancha was parked here, loaded with more than 800 yards of fishing line.

Fifteen miles of farmland separate the beach from Matamoros, the city of 1.2 million across the border from Brownsville, and South Padre Island, where Hernandez washed up. Despite its proximity to the United States and to northern Mexico’s industrial sprawl, Playa Bagdad has no electricity, no running water, and no regulatory enforcement. You can catch, kill, and sell anything that lands in your hull—a scourge to the few environmentalists who know the beach exists.

“They’re fishing in a prime habitat for juvenile sandbar and blacktip sharks,” says Karyl Brewster-Geisz, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who produced a 15-page report on illegal shark fishing along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2005. “And unlike the U.S., where permits are issued for particular species,” she says, fishermen in Playa Bagdad “take whatever they can get.”

Scientists say a growing trade in shark fins is depleting shark populations around the globe and disrupting ecosystems long dependent on the predator’s presence. On the Texas-Mexico border, shark fishing threatens more than the environment. “This is our sovereignty we’re trying to protect,” says Lt. Mickey Lalor, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard’s South Padre Island station. “These are our resources. These are our waters.”

In the last decade, the Coast Guard has devoted a growing effort, now 60 officers strong, to deterring illegal shark fishing. That hasn’t stopped men from making the dangerous trip north in search of sharks.

Playa Bagdad’s fishermen, like Hernandez, earn about $15 a day hauling in sharks that will eventually feed businesspeople in Hong Kong and Beijing. In large Asian cities, a bowl of shark fin soup sells for as much as $100. The resulting surge in shark fishing happened thousands of miles away, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

“Where there are sharks, we make money,” Hernandez says. “When the nets are empty, we have nothing.”

Shark Fins

The opportunity attracts itinerants and career fishermen from all over Mexico. Most come for the sharks and the reliable income. Others, like Andres Hernandez, have more complicated stories.

Hernandez became a shark fisherman by accident. Six years later, he’s not sure how it happened—how he landed on a beach 1,200 miles from home, slicing fins off some of the Gulf’s largest hammerheads and blacktips.

When he left Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s, Hernandez planned to score a construction job in Texas or California. There was money across the border, enough to send a check home every month, maybe buy a house or two in Chiapas. He rode for three weeks atop the tren de muerte, or train of death, which daring immigrants take from southern Mexico to the border, and was apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. He tried again and again to cross the border—through farms, under international bridges—each time he was detained and sent back across the Rio Grande.

Returning to Chiapas would have been shameful, Hernandez says. With a second-grade education, he found only the occasional job picking okra in Matamoros. He was in his late 30s then, slightly hunched, almost frail-looking except for his calloused hands. A friend told him there would be jobs on Playa Bagdad.

After a few weeks on the beach, Hernandez discovered his friend was right. The demand for shark fishermen is unceasing. The job is so dangerous and so uncomfortable that few are willing to do it. When someone drowns or loses a limb to a shark, someone has to replace him. About 10 of Playa Bagdad’s fishermen drowned in 2008.

Hernandez learned these dangers firsthand as he flailed for life, surrounded by the sharks that had spilled from his overturned boat.

On March 10, as usual, Hernandez’s workday began at 5 p.m. He said goodbye to his girlfriend, Maria Elena, a quiet woman 20 years his elder. He walked out of their makeshift hut full of clothes and old coffee cans. The beach came to life just after sunset, when about 100 fishermen began preparing their lanchas for 10-hour trips into the Gulf. Next to the boats, decaying signs advertised restaurants and bars: La Novia del Mar, Disco Coco Loco, La Bamba. The former seaside haunts had been destroyed by hurricanes and tropical storms years ago. The beach belonged to shark fishermen.

Hernandez climbed into his boat, a 25-foot, open-top skiff called Relampago, or Lightning, with a yellow bolt emblazoned on its side. Two crewmates joined him. The three had been fishing together for more than a year. Hernandez knew the others only by their nicknames: El Pelon, for the particularly slick crew cut he once gave himself, and La Cherna, for his resemblance to a round, bottom-dwelling fish.

A rusty tractor launched Relampago into the surf. The crew used wooden pylons to propel themselves through the shallows before tugging the cord of a 10-year-old motor and speeding east through the Gulf. Thirty minutes later, they crossed the border.

At the intersection of the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande, the fishermen saw no Border Patrol, no buoys, no flags along the river. In the distance, Hernandez could barely make out the pale lighthouse south of the Rio Grande—the only indication that the lancha had entered American waters. This night, Hernandez says they drifted north unintentionally, after a strong current overwhelmed the motor. But it’s typically no accident when Playa Bagdad’s fishermen cross the border. It’s to hunt sharks.

Playa Bagdad’s fishermen have concocted all kinds of explanations for the productivity of American waters. They credit the wind and the tides. They point to the reefs where fish are the most dense. At the core of their reasoning, most fishermen claim that U.S. environmental regulations have preserved the shark population north of the border. “We’re poor Mexicans. We catch anything we can sell,” Hernandez says. “And after a while, we caught everything in Mexico. With American regulations, there are still sharks to catch on the other side.”

Fishermen leaving Playa Bagdad at night.

Jose Leonardo Castillo-Geniz, a leading shark biologist at the National Fisheries Institute of Mexico, studied the Playa Bagdad fishermen over several years in the 1990s. They came to know Castillo-Geniz well, sometimes beckoning to him from across the beach. “Hey biologist,” they would yell, pointing to a freshly caught pile of sharks, “these sharks are gringos.”

Castillo-Geniz never established why fishermen took great risks to pursue American sharks—the gringos—across the border. “Maybe they know about nursing areas where adults mate and give birth,” he says. “Or maybe the competition for fishery grounds obligate some fishermen to catch sharks in U.S. waters.”

The biologist’s concern was not where the sharks were caught, but how lack of oversight had led to overfishing of several economically and culturally important shark species. If regulations aren’t implemented in Mexican fisheries, particularly along the border, Castillo-Geniz fears those populations could collapse. On Playa Bagdad, he documented a decrease in catch sizes and a high number of infants and pregnant females being caught commercially—clear signs that the fishery isn’t sustainable.

There’s a painful irony in the exhaustive pursuit of sharks in Mexico—where the Olmecs and Aztecs once consecrated the fish. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, sharks were one of the country’s cheapest sources of animal protein, making it a staple in poor, coastal communities. In the 21st century, Asian demand for shark fin soup is driving the price of the fish higher and drawing more fishermen into the trade.

When Castillo-Geniz published his report in 1998, he and other biologists at the National Fisheries Institute used it to lobby for increased regulations of Mexico’s artisanal fisheries. His efforts to create Normas Oficiales Mexicanas have repeatedly failed, he says, because of pressure from the commercial fishing industry on the country’s politicians. The situation is urgent, Castillo-Geniz says: If Mexico doesn’t get stricter with shark fishermen, and if the fishermen continue to cast their nets across the border, the Gulf’s biodiversity could be threatened.

Just off the coast of South Texas, Mexican shark fishermen play a high stakes game of cat and mouse with the U.S. Coast Guard. Watch the Coast Guard’s aerial footage of a chase along the border, with photos by Daniel Lopez and Kevin Sieff. Produced by Kevin Sieff.

In 2007, Science magazine published a report arguing that overfishing large sharks had destroyed native species in the Atlantic. The authors, five marine biologists, reported that typical prey of hammerheads, duskies and other sharks—like the cownose ray—are thriving with fewer predators in the water. In turn, those animals are destroying mollusk populations along the Eastern Seaboard. Scientists call the phenomenon a “trophic cascade”—one likely to be repeated in the Gulf.

“The decline of the great sharks matters to the ocean’s ecosystems,” says Charles Peterson, one of the Science report’s authors and a professor of marine biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “In this case, overfishing of these sharks led to the loss of a fishery for shellfish and the loss of services that industry provided to fishermen and customers.” During a single month, Peterson said, cownose rays—no longer kept in check by a healthy shark population—consumed enough bay scallops to close a 100-year-old fishery off the coast of North Carolina.

In the Gulf, Peterson worries, the same phenomenon might be accelerating. “When you have fishermen who are entirely dependent on shark fishing, so that there are no other options for you, that becomes a significant issue,” he says.

Some time around midnight, the three men on Hernandez’s lancha tossed 800 yards of fishing line with dozens of dangling hooks over the boat’s rails. In American waters, the key is to unload quickly, set up the line in known avenues for migratory sharks, and keep an eye out for U.S. Coast Guard boats.

The sharks swam by in schools, groups of 10 or 15 at a time, causing explosions of whitewater. The men waited in darkness for the catch to collect. In less than an hour, the seas had grown rougher. Swells buffeted the tiny skiff as the fishermen filled the hull with sharks. The temperature dropped. The wind rose to a howl, knocking the three men off balance. But the sharks kept coming, so the crew agreed to wait it out.

The catch was one of the biggest Hernandez had seen. He tried to guess how many kilos they’d caught. Six hundred? Seven hundred? There were blacktips, hammerheads and sandbar sharks, almost all of them cazones, or juveniles, about 2 feet long. The crew would be paid 25 cents for every pound of shark meat and $15 for every pound of fin.

As he loaded the lancha, Hernandez was seeing dollar signs. Then he noticed the hull sinking, saw the boat start taking on water.

It was too late to ditch fish or gear. Water was coming from all sides, pouring over the lancha‘s rails. A few minutes later, the three fishermen were swimming, trying to grab anything that would keep them afloat. The boat carried no rafts, no signal flares, and only one life preserver.

Hernandez drifted from the sinking lancha, staring up at the moon to gauge where land might be. He paddled slowly west until he saw what looked like a lifesaver ring. He reached for it, threw it over his head, and started his 11-hour swim.

Lt. Mickey Lalor, the Coast Guard commander, got the call around noon, after Hernandez was found by a Border Patrol agent. “Capsized lancha. Six miles out.”

Lalor was used to getting calls about Mexican lanchas. At least twice a week his men chase down illegal fishermen at 30 or 40 knots, often blasting the outboard motor with a shotgun or firing pepper balls at the motors of fleeing boats.

Mexican shark fishermen catch more than 55,000 sharks in American waters annually, according to an estimate by NOAA. Keeping them south of the border has become the focus of the island’s station.

Illegal shark fishing wasn’t always a problem on the Texas-Mexico border. Mexico’s first shark fisheries, founded in the 1890s, were on the country’s Pacific coast. Even then, most of the catch was transported to Asia. But in the 1970s, as demand for shark fins grew, Playa Bagdad’s fishery began to grow. Bagdad became one of the country’s most reliable sources of sharks.

Lalor had coordinated more apprehensions than he could count. But this was the first time he had been called to save a lancha’s crew, the first time he’d be trying to do shark fishermen a favor. He sent three boats—the same ones used for high-speed chases—to search for Hernandez’s friends. The Coast Guard’s plane and helicopter left Corpus Christi to scan the Gulf from above.

The helicopter found the lancha first. It was overturned, surrounded by floating debris. La Cherna was holding onto the boat, waving with one hand at the pilot. The helicopter dropped a harness and lifted him out of the Gulf. Officers took him to the Coast Guard station, administered first aid, and asked about the third fisherman, El Pelon.

The catch.

“He told us the other survivor was within shouting distance of him,” Lalor says. “So that really concentrated our efforts.”

In his office at the foot of South Padre Island’s 25-story high-rises, Lalor looked at a map of the Gulf on the wall, calculating where the current might have taken the missing fisherman. Coast Guard officers swept the area for almost 36 hours. When the sun set on the second day, Lalor called off the search for El Pelon. The station went back to its normal routine, running morning patrol missions to the border.

Not long after he swam ashore, the Border Patrol dropped Hernandez off at the Brownsville-Matamoros international bridge. That’s always been the government’s policy:
onfiscate the equipment and the catch (if they haven’
been destroyed) and send the fishermen back across the border. For now, there’s no jail sentence and no fine for Mexican nationals who fish illegally in American waters.

Still, the costs are high for fishermen like Hernandez. Not long after returning to Playa Bagdad, he heard news that the Coast Guard had called off the search for El Pelon.

It was a Sunday. He walked to Playa Bagdad’s plywood church.

Hernandez couldn’t will himself back into a boat, which left him unemployed and with plenty of time to pray. “I hope my friend is alive,” he recalls saying. “I hope he’s across the border, starting a new life for himself.”

Inside the church, Pastor Rafael Garcia leaned on a row of teal-blue pews, preparing to lead the Sunday service. Garcia, who divides his time between preaching and shark fishing, had done this several times in the last year—delivered a sermon while one of the community’s fishermen was lost at sea. “It’s a hard life we have here,” the pastor said. “So much tragedy.”

Garcia mentioned El Pelon briefly and obliquely, asking his small congregation for prayers.

Then he moved on to the scripture. Hernandez, who can’t read, opened his Bible and tried to follow along. Through the church’s open windows, he saw the Gulf ebb quietly.

For weeks, Hernandez waited for news of El Pelon. Hearing nothing, he started to hope his friend had somehow survived. Then he got a call from someone down the beach. A body had washed ashore across the border. The authorities needed someone to see if it was El Pelon.

When Hernandez met the group of uniformed men at the Matamoros international bridge, there was no body, only a photograph. The face in the photo was missing its eyeballs. It barely looked human. The torso was bloated and sunburnt. Hernandez recognized El Pelon’s torn clothing, including a piece of orange rain gear.

“Yeah,” he told the man holding the photo. “That’s him.”

No one knew where El Pelon was from—as with many of Playa Bagdad’s fishermen. No one knew if he had family back home, wherever home was. Local authorities buried him in an unmarked grave.

“It didn’t seem right,” Hernandez says. “But what could we do?”

La Cherna wasn’t around to help. Hernandez’s other shipmate had been apprehended in American waters a week after being rescued by the Coast Guard.

Of the three crewmen, Hernandez is the only one still on Playa Bagdad. He’s not sure if he’s ready to fish again, not even sure he wants to live so close to the ocean after seeing what it did to El Pelon.

“But what else can I do? What else am I qualified to do?” Hernandez asks, raising his voice at no one.

Fifty yards from his hut, a lancha arrives with a boatload of sharks. Fishermen pull out their machetes. They slice off the sharks’ fins and pile the bodies in a truck filled with ice. One fisherman slips a few peso bills into his pocket. Hernandez checks out the scene. He can’t be sure which side of the border the sharks came from. He doesn’t really care.

He sizes up the catch, watches the fishermen take the last shark out of the lancha. Hernandez shakes his head.

“Before we capsized,” he says, “we had even more sharks than that.”Kevin Sieff is an Observer contributing writer based in Washington, D.C. See his and photographer Daniel Lopez’s audio slide show on Mexican shark fishing at texasobserver.org.