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For US Coast Guard, border enforcement and protecting the environment go hand in hand

The military branch also teams up with south Texas nonprofits and zoos to help feed their animals with the catch that would have previously been thrown out.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — When you think of the U.S. Coast Guard, images of them hanging off a helicopter rescuing people from the water come to mind. But the Coast Guard does much more, including lending a hand in border-related enforcement, which often leads to helping feed animals at a local zoo and a turtle sanctuary.

“We're responsible for search and rescue, recreational boating safety, law enforcement, and then the deterrence of illegal fishing or illegal drug trafficking or migrant trafficking,” said Lt. Cmdr. Dan Ippolito, commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Station on South Padre Island.

When KENS 5 went out with Ippolito’s team recently, they were looking for illegal fishing or any other illegal activity.

“We do a lot of patrolling offshore for illegal activity, including drug trafficking, illegal immigration or illegal fishing in our waters,” Ippolito said.

Illegal fishing is a consistent problem in U.S. waters. 

“A lot of the gear that they use to fish is highly illegal, will not pass any inspection for a U.S. fisherman to use,” Ippolito said. “It catches a lot of other animals, sea creatures like dolphins, sea turtles, overcatches fish. It's just not good for the environment.”

The U.S. Coast Guard told KENS 5 that, in fiscal year 2021, it seized 15,484 pounds of catch along the Texas coast. It also seized 78 boats and detained 208 fishermen. 

These numbers fluctuate year to year.

In fiscal year 2019, the Coast Guard confiscated 21,413 pounds of fish. It was 33,821 in 2020.

Three hundred-twenty people were detained for illegal fishing in 2019 and 553 in 2020.

In fiscal year 2019, 74 boats were seized and 56 in 2020.

“Anytime we see that (illegal) activity, we're protecting our sovereignty, but we're also protecting the environment,” Ippolito told KENS 5.

Whatever is confiscated and can be fed to something like a turtle, the Coast Guard donates to Sea Turtle Inc., a rehabilitation and conservation nonprofit in South Padre Island.

Chief Conservation Officer Dr. Amy Bonka said the partnership has been in place for many years.

“The Coast Guard also contacts us directly should they encounter a sick or injured sea turtle,” Bonka said in an email. “In fact, our most recent patient, Sherbert, came to us from the Coast Guard.  The Coast Guard found the turtle struggling at the surface during one of their training exercises. They contacted us at Sea Turtle Inc., and we were able to get the turtle into our hospital for treatment.”  

Coast Guard’s newer partner is the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

“We're small, but we were very involved in our communities,” Ippolito said.

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