Illegal fishing of lobster on Mexico’s Yucatán coast has given rise to a seafaring community defense group, shining a light on the threat faced both by the region’s marine life and those who depend on it.
For the last four months, fishermen in the community of Río Lagartos, Yucatán, have operated as a vigilante group to protect lobster populations on local fishing grounds, according to a report by newspaper Milenio. The group is made up of five fishing cooperatives, who stated that a sharp rise in illegal fishing had led to a rapid decline in lobster stocks.
The fishermen reported that on July 1, the first day of the open season, which usually yields the largest lobster hauls, the catch was two-thirds lower than usual. Where each boat would normally catch 60 kilograms of lobster a day, they barely made it to 20 kilograms this year, Milenio reported.
The group, known as the Community Inspection and Surveillance Committee of Eastern Yucatán (Comité Comunitario de Inspección y Vigilancia del Oriente de Yucatán), has no legal authority to arrest illegal fishermen but it supports Mexican officials who confiscate fishing equipment from vessels found on the water during close season.
According to the Río Lagartos fishermen, the illegal crews are coming from the nearby municipality of Dzilam de Bravo. In July 2021, a series of seizures in Dzilam de Bravo netted close to 10 tons of illegally caught seafood, mostly octopus. The town's mayor and chief of police were also allegedly linked to illegal fishing operations.
Invasive fishing vessels do not only arrive from Dzilam de Bravo to hunt lobster. They come from far and wide to pillage the waters of Yucatán. Last year, InSight Crime reported that vessels from states including Campeche, Tabasco, and Quintana Roo have played a part in draining fish, octopus, and sea cucumber populations in Yucatán state waters.
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Community defense groups are increasingly common across Mexico as various sectors fend off external threats to their livelihoods, including organized crime groups.
While this is the first reported defense group to be created by lobster fishermen, it followed an existing model. Last May, in the neighboring state of Campeche, it was reported that fishermen were arming themselves to repel attacks by pirates who steal their engines and catch.
On land, avocado and lime farmers have taken up arms to fight back against systematic violence at extortion at the hands of some of Mexico's most feared criminal groups.
Unlike most of these, the lobster fishermen do not use violence or carry weapons. Yet they, like every other instance mentioned above, decry the utter lack of support from authorities.
A member of the defense group told Milenio that they made repeated requests to federal and state institutions for support in protecting their fishing grounds.
“They haven’t helped us with anything. We realized we had to do it with our own resources,” the member said.
In 2021, Mexico's National Aquaculture and Fishing Commission (Comisión Nacional de Acuacultura y Pesca - CONAPESCA) had only three vessels and six officials to steward Yucatán’s 378-kilometer coastline. However, there are 3,983 small fishing vessels and 638 large vessels registered as operating in the same space, according to figures from Mexican non-governmental organization, Causa Natura.