Illegal fishing is out of control in the Mexican state of Yucatán, according to local fishermen and media, as illegal techniques, competition from out-of-state vessels, and dwindling fisheries combine to threaten a major national industry.
Fishermen cite a laundry list of problems, including vessels illegally capturing fish that are smaller than allowed as well as fishing during the closed season, according to La Jornada Maya, a local newspaper. Many of these fishing vessels are coming from nearby states such as Campeche, Tabasco and Quintana Roo, leading to a dramatic fall in the numbers of octopus, lobsters, groupers and sea cucumbers available to be fished by the Yucatán fleet.
Some of these out-of-state vessels are even using industrial fishing methods such as unregulated transshipments - a controversial practice of transferring catch onto a mothership in exchange for fuel and food, allowing the boats to fish for longer periods and potentially launder illegally caught fish.
Similar allegations were also reported on July 1, when fishing captains told local media that about 40 boats from the port of Celestún in Yucatán were to spend ten days fishing in a range of protected areas. The captains stated that while the main boats would be catching fish within legal norms, they would dispatch dozens of smaller vessels to catch smaller fish than permitted illicitly.
One of the areas targeted by these boats is the Scorpion Reef, off the northern coast of Yucatán. This national park is one of Mexico’s marine protected areas most at risk from illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, according to a May 2021 report by Oceana, a maritime protection non-governmental organization. Between 2012 and 2021, “106 vessels potentially engaged in fishing activities were detected in [the National Park’s] core area, a perimeter in which any type of fishing is prohibited,” the report said.
InSight Crime Analysis
Debates about illegal fishing in Latin America often focus on large foreign fleets or small-scale domestic fishing workers. What these analyses sometimes miss, however, is how in some areas, domestic fishing workers are increasingly acting like big foreign fleets.
Transshipping is a bizarre practice for fishing vessels operating in their own national waters, since in normal circumstances, the extra fuel, food, ice and transport costs would far outweigh the value of any additional catch. Even the big foreign fleets only remain profitable due to huge fuel subsidies from their national governments.
Thus, the answer likely lies not in strength but in weakness. The exact state of Mexico’s fisheries is unclear – government statistics claim 17 percent are overfished or depleted, and a further 63 percent cannot withstand any additional fishing pressure – yet anecdotal evidence suggests the problem may be far greater.
In the Diario de Yucatán, fishing workers complained that dwindling stocks mean they have to travel further and further out to fish and that even then, their catch is falling steadily every year. They attributed the appearance in their waters of fishing vessels – from Campeche, Tabasco, Veracruz and Quintana Roo – practicing transshipment to the same phenomenon. Those states’ reserves are even more depleted.
“It’s a huge problem, all over the country. Illegal fishing has many manifestations, and in one form or another, it is prevalent in all of our coastal states,” Pedro Zapata, a senior campaign advisor at Oceana, told InSight Crime.
Furthermore, he added that many local fishing workers may inadvertently exacerbate the problem because of Mexico’s opaque, disorganized fisheries management.
“[T]he fisheries agency (CONAPESCA) has become more and more incompetent and absent… [and] even knowing exactly what is legal and what is illegal is complicated sometimes, as laws are changed constantly,” he told InSight Crime.
That shows up in the numbers. At the global level, IUU fishing is estimated to account for 20 percent of all catch. In Mexico, that number rises to a staggering 50 percent - roughly one in every two kilos of fish caught in the country is done so illegally, according to a 2013 report by the Environmental Defense Fund of Mexico.