TPWD is coordinating the effort with other agencies, including the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs, Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas Homeland Security.
Falcon Lake is a massive impoundment along the Rio Grande River extending about 20 miles long and three miles wide at some points and covers 87,000 surface acres.
Huff estimates there are about 75 Mexican commercial fishermen who fish Falcon Lake daily. It is legal to use gill nets, hoop nets and other commercial fishing gear on the Mexican side of the lake; such practices are outlawed in all Texas state waters.
TPWD game wardens routinely patrol the lake investigating these kinds of activities and have been successful in apprehending violators. According to Huff, patrols during the last six months have resulted in 12 arrests, along with seizure of seven vessels and outboard motors and more than 38,000 feet of gill netting. A similar operation conducted between Sept. 2004 and Aug. 2005 resulted in 34 arrests, seizure of 23 vessels and more than 84,000 feet of illegal nets.
Unlike routine lake patrols elsewhere, Lake Falcon presents unique challenges for law enforcement. “Whenever we see one of these types of boats, we don’t know if it is an illegal fisherman of a drug runner,” said Huff. “Most of the arrests involve Mexican nationals and once we’ve made contact and determine they are conducting illegal activity we have to seize their equipment and vessel and bring them ashore. We can’t simply issue a citation because there are other violations of the law that come into play; illegal entry.”
“We’re not just going to concentrate on illegal commercial fishing activities, but all game and fish activities,” said TPWD Game Warden Major Alfonso Vielma. “We intend to bring attention that is needed to Falcon Lake. There are other elements coming through the lake — illegal aliens, drug smuggling — dangerous elements. We’re concentrating on game law violations, but we won’t ignore other violations of the law.”
The location of Falcon Lake makes for easy access by illegal immigrants from Mexico to Texas soil, as well as for illegal drug smuggling activity and is sometimes viewed as a potential Homeland Security threat. Violations including illegal entry, drug smuggling or other homeland security related activities will be turned over to other appropriate authorities.
Huff added it is not uncommon to arrest the same individuals several times over a period of time; they typically return after obtaining another vessel. But, he sees the additional enforcement pressure as a deterrent. “Our wardens are doing a great job with great success, but a statewide operation is necessary to show the fishermen and the public we are committed to enforcing the law,” he stressed.
Commercial netting has been outlawed in Texas waters for decades because of the potential impacts to a fishery. Commercial netting nearly wiped out redfish populations along the Texas coast in the ’70s, which led to the statewide ban.
Illegal commercial netting can severely deplete aquatic resources on reservoirs such as Falcon Lake, where low water levels during dry periods can concentrate fish, making them susceptible to fishing pressure and poor reproduction. Until recently, Falcon Lake had been suffering through a decade long drought that saw lake levels plummet 50-feet; lowest on record.
Commercial fishing on Falcon Lake is nothing new, according to Huff. The lake was impounded in 1954 and by 1958, an influx of commercial fishermen from East Texas used high powered boats to illegally fish with gill nets and wooden fish boxes. Mexican commercial fishermen soon entered the scene and by the 1970s when commercial fishing became illegal in Texas, had the run of Falcon Lake to themselves.
Insignificant fines and penalties did nothing to deter the activity. By 1980, Mexican commercial fishing operations were at an all-time high with more than 300 registered fishermen. In 1990, TPWD game wardens had filed 175 cases and confiscated more than 50 MILES of illegal nets.
Finally, in 1991, a bill was passed allowing game wardens to seize and confiscate undocumented vessels used in illegal netting activities. Although the confiscation of vessels and gear has had the desired effect, illegal commercial fishing continues on Falcon Lake.
“Why? The answer is simple,” Huff said. “Profit outweighs penalty. The profit being derived from high fish prices and the smuggling of drugs is the incentive. Certain species of rough fish bring more than $2 per pound on today’s market. What we want to do with stepped up enforcement operations is to make it unprofitable.”