On a recent fishing trip thirty miles offshore, some friends of mine and I came across a tragic sight which has become all too common in recent years. What I took initially to be one flagged end of a panga longline, what the locals call a “simbra,” was in fact a drifting abandoned longline, with turtles choking in the tangled mess of cord, buoys, and hooks. While I have on a number of occasions freed turtles from various entanglements, some involving small bunches of broken-off longline cord, I had never encountered the disaster of a complete abandoned longline before. They are floating death traps, wrapping up turtle after turtle in their tangled mess.
We spent hours patiently cutting through masses of cord and monofilament line, pulling hooks out of turtles, and at times having to amputate completely destroyed flippers. It was sickening work but necessary to save the turtles we could, and to remove the mess from the water to prevent further untold death and destruction. After our initial work on the first discovery, we found another abandoned section of longline a few miles away with the same nightmare awaiting us. By the time we were finished we had freed 14 turtles, cut loose a half dozen dead sharks, and brought a mountain of gear onto my friend’s boat.
Panga longlining: What it is, what’s wrong with it
When I first began fishing Huatulco waters in my own boat over five years ago, panga longlines were virtually nonexistent. When I began to see them, they were rarely longer than a quarter mile, marked by a crude black plastic flag on each end, with barely visible jugs and plastic bottles keeping the line in between afloat. Off the main cord running between the flags are short sections of monofilament with circle hooks and bait on them, so they can run a few hundred baited hooks in total, leave it drifting all day or overnight while a panga sits at one end of it tending it, periodically collecting the catch from the hooks.
There are a number of problems with this form of fishing as practiced in Huatulco waters that make it an unmitigated disaster all around. The first one is that the its product is barely fit for human consumption. Unlike some more remote areas in Chiapas where longline panga fleets ship their catch to Mexico City and are required to carry fish boxes full of ice to preserve their catch, there are no standards in Huatulco for fish preservation. None of the longline pangas carry ice, and the fish rot in the sun and heat all day or all night long. As a lifelong fisherman and fish chef who prides myself on the quality of my catch and my preparation, I am appalled at what gets sold in the local markets as “fresh fish.” Oddly, this tendency isn’t even restricted to locals. Hardly any of my fellow fishermen with private boats at Chahue Marina carry ice for their fish either. In a scorching tropical climate, this has left me scratching my head for years. Few people in the area have ever had a chance to eat truly fresh fish as a result, because it has been so poorly preserved in the initial hours after being caught.
The second problem with longlining is that by and large the products of it are illegal. Commercial large-scale longlining was banned within 50 miles of the Mexican coast over 30 years ago.
At this time rules were put in place to protect designated sportfish and make them off limits to commercial harvest. These fish include dorado (mahi mahi), marlin, and sailfish. Authorities at the fisheries body, CONAPESCA, decided the restrictions were too hard on the poorer panga fishermen who made a living off the sea, and allowed them to keep longlining on a small scale as long as they did it under a shark permit with the primary target being sharks. They are allowed to keep 10 percent bycatch under the permits of any type, with 90 percent of the catch required to be shark. In practice this is completely unregulated, and the BULK of the catch in Huatulco tends to be off-limits dorado, sailfish, and marlin, with a small amount of shark. Sharks have been overfished in the Gulf of Tehuantepec for years, and I have never been anywhere with such healthy sea life but a nearly nonexistent shark population as Huatulco waters. They are much more abundant off Puerto Angel and it’s not as much of a fiction up there that the longliners are shark fishing, but in Huatulco waters it is largely a fiction to allow them to harvest off-limits fish.
The third problem with longlining is that it is a disaster for navigation. Just before Christmas when I was fishing offshore, there were at least a dozen longline pangas between Santa Cruz and Cuatunalco, each running 2-3 mile longlines, blocking off nearly every avenue of navigation through the ocean. The local panga sportfishing boats just tilt up their motors and glide over the lines when they want to cross them, but larger boats with inboard engines cannot do this, and are forced to detour for miles to work their way around them. In addition, the lines are so poorly marked by their crude jugs and bottles they are nearly invisible much of the time, and it’s easy to run right across one and tangle it in your props before you know it. When oil freighters out of Salina Cruz pass up the coast, they can destroy a longline and leave it an abandoned ghostline unless the panga tending it manages to haul it all in beforehand.
As the longliners have become increasingly brazen about running longer and longer lines with more and more hooks, it can become quite difficult to pull in a three mile line in a timely fashion. Furthermore, for a resort area like Huatulco that wants to attract people for sportfishing and whale watching and enjoyment of the amazing ocean, hazards to navigation like longlines are a blight upon the sea for the average tourist. Lately I have found longliners to be increasingly aggressive as well, charging their pangas at the boat I am on and shouting to clear out of “their” area.
Many visitors and part time residents, unaware of all the facts, are loathe to voice an opinion on how locals can fish or not, it being their country and their waters. But when the fishing being done is illegal, when Mexican sportfishing captains (who bring 1000 times the income to the local economy that the rag-tag small Huatulco longline fleet does) are almost universally against it, and when it has a negative impact on tourism in Huatulco, it needs to be denounced.
A year or two ago, in the Fonatur resort area of Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo, a campaign by Mexican sportfishing captains to enforce the law led the Navy to ban panga longlining in the waters there. In the state of Colima, pressure upon CONAPESCA from state politicians concerned about tourism has led the fisheries body to start enforcing the law on the water around Manzanillo and in the ports. I attended a meeting in Santa Cruz two years ago that angry local sportfishing captains demanded to have with the port captain and local authorities after somewhere between 30-50 sailfish were illegally brought in by longliners one day. The authorities’ defense was they would have to enforce the laws strictly on everyone, including ones routinely broken by sportfishermen, if they were to enforce it on the longliners. One burly eloquent sportfishing captain who spoke best for the sentiments of those assembled, shouted angrily that they were fine with that, but just ENFORCE THE LAW.
Nothing came of that assembly, because as long as the issue is concealed out of view of the tourists, the authorities are resistant to acting. But if we all, as concerned visitors or residents of Huatulco, lend our voice to this campaign, hopefully we can achieve the same results as in Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo and Manzanillo. Contact Fonatur to voice your concern:
Hector Martin Gómez Barranza
Ramón Sinobal Solís
Regional Delegate, Huatulco
George Hurchalla is a longtime resident of Huatulco, dedicated sport fisherman, and runs the website huatulcofishing.com to provide tourists with an unbiased non-profit source of English language information on the entire Huatulco area, as well as fishing reports and information. After this article was written, George has rescued at least three more turtles from life-threatening tangles with a loose longlines.