Our ports and waterways are filled with fishing boats. Methamphetamine use floods our cities. Yet, few in law enforcement realize a link between the two. Current regulatory systems do more to help the manufacture and trafficking of, "Meth" than they do to prevent it.
Originally Published April 5, 2005
Recent trends show the potential for drug manufacture and trafficking via commercial fishing boats. Larger commercial and passenger vessels are regulated according to 46 Code of Federal Regulations (Shipping). These regulations clarify the standard of safe operation, dictate structural integrity, and fire fighting and lifesaving concerns. Yet, the fishing industry has successfully lobbied against regulation claiming they operate on close profit margins. Bringing fishing vessels up to the standard required to gain a Certificate of Inspection can be expensive.
Congress enacted the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 in order to mandate the requirement for safety and survival equipment. But aside from regulations pertaining to lifesaving issues, vessel inspection requirements are noticeably absent. The Coast Guard offers voluntary safety inspections and many reputable operators take advantage of this opportunity. Yet, few mandated regulations exist.
In like manner, Merchant Mariners operating commercial ships and charter vessels with passengers for hire are held to a higher standard. These mariners must undergo numerous training courses, pass written and physical tests as well as be subject to random drug testing. Additionally, they are held up to a moral standard and can not serve if they have convictions or drug or alcohol dependencies. Operators of fishing vessels are given the opportunity to take an examination for a license; however, there is no requirement.
Given the exclusions noted above, an operator of a fishing vessel could have a criminal record and operate the vessel without regulation other than a safety or fisheries enforcement boarding by the Coast Guard.
Precursors and Hazards
Refrigeration systems aboard fishing boats use either Anhydrous Ammonia or Freon to keep the fish cold. Both chemicals are often used as precursors for Methamphetamine cooking. Another precursor chemical sometimes used on these vessels is Ether, used as a starting fluid for engines. All of these chemicals present serious hazards to first responders. Of particular concern is anhydrous. Inhalation of this chemical can bring about severe respiratory injuries or death at higher concentrations. As a corrosive, it can burn the skin or eyes.
While anhydrous is used onboard, it is often carried in cylinders. In recent years, anhydrous has been concealed within fire extinguishers and portable propane cylinders. When stored within unsuitable pressure containers, anhydrous corrodes brass fittings from the inside out. A tell-tale sign is often a blue-green residue on the brass fitting. This corrosion in turn weakens the integrity of the cylinder. A brass fitting appearing to be intact may break off causing a hazardous chemical release as well as uncontrolled flight of the cylinder.
In 2003 an Indiana man suffered severe injuries when a fire extinguisher carrying anhydrous exploded, burning his body and causing serious lung damage. First Responder information regarding Anhydrous Ammonia can be found in the DOT Emergency Response Guidebook under Number 125. In recent years, small un-inspected vessels have yielded arrests throughout the nation:
• In August 2003, three crewmembers of the fishing vessel, “NU-C” were arrested in Westport, WA after authorities discovered a methamphetamine lab aboard the boat.
• In Lighthouse Point, FL Law Enforcement discovered 771 pounds of cocaine hidden in the forward cabin area of the vessel, “Sea Double”.
• In June 2000, two individuals from Northern California were arrested after faking their deaths 11 years earlier by sinking their fishing boat. These two individuals according to Customs and DEA were responsible for the import of over 400 tons of hashish and marijuana through their fleet of vessels.
• Historically, fishing boats have been used as drug transport vessels. They import drugs into the country by blending in with existing fishing fleets as they make entry to the U.S.
While there are many reputable fishermen working the California waters, the potential for drug manufacture or trafficking continues as these vessels and operators are not held to regulation. Additionally, small privately owned boats used as live-aboard vessels could be used to shield these operations. Conversations with Law Enforcement in the Marina Del Rey area confirm this is a likely scenario that could extend throughout the California coast and waterways.
Recent discussions with Law Enforcement show many fishing boats have operators or crews with criminal records or association to Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMG). The indicators of land based methamphetamine labs are often consistent with those found onboard boats. Yet, some differences may apply:
• Fishing vessels departing port may return showing no indication of fishing activity. This would include dry fishing gear, the wrong gear for the type of intended catch, or sometimes, no catch at all.
• Returning vessels may have, “Rub marks” along the hull indicating they may have rendezvoused with another vessel for an on load or offload of cargo.
• Live aboard boats may have frequent visitors, staying for short durations, or may be anchored out to avoid direct observation.
• Live aboard boats may have the windows darkened or show evidence of electronic surveillance equipment. The Passive Infrared (PIR) motion sensor or video surveillance camera can easily be installed giving the occupants warning.
• In addition to normal indicators of a lab, (strong chemical or urine smell indicative of ammonia or acetone, mason jars, large amounts of camp stove fuel, pressure cylinders, occupants going outside to smoke, etc), these vessels being moored in a marina, public facility or anchored out, use public dumpsters. Trash from these vessels may show evidence of drug manufacture.
As noted earlier, these vessels are often exempt from regulatory oversight giving opportunity for criminal activity. If a vessel is suspected of drug manufacture or trafficking, proceed with caution as the crime scene could easily become a hazmat site placing Law Enforcement personnel in jeopardy.
This article was originally written and published in the May 2005 LA CLEAR publication, “The CLEAR SOLUTION”. The Los Angeles County Regional Criminal Information Clearinghouse is based in Los Angeles County, California and serves four High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA): Los Angeles, Northern California, Central Valley, and Nevada. Within these four HIDTA's, the Clearinghouse supports a total of 416 law enforcement entities.