At least eight people have died after two fishing boats capsized off the coast of San Diego, California in the US, emergency officials have said.
Crews were searching on Sunday for an estimated seven additional people, authorities said.
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A woman on one of the panga-style boats called 911 late on Saturday to report that the other vessel had overturned in the waves off Black’s Beach, according to United States Coast Guard Petty Officer Richard Brahm.
“The woman who called stated that the boat that overturned had 15 people on it, but that was just an estimate,” Brahm said.
Coast Guard and San Diego Fire-Rescue crews pulled eight bodies from the water, but thick fog hampered the search for additional victims. A Coast Guard cutter combed the area early Sunday, and officials hoped to get helicopters in the air when the weather improves, Brahm said.
Authorities said the boats appeared to be part of a people-smuggling operation.
“We lost eight souls,” the lifeguard chief for the city of San Diego, James Gartland, told a press conference, adding that it was “one of the worst maritime smuggling tragedies that I can think of in California, certainly here in the city of San Diego”.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Eddie Berrios confirmed eight people died and teams were searching for at least seven more. He didn’t know what kind of boats they were, but said pangas – small open boats with outboard engines used in smuggling operations – often come ashore there.
It was unclear whether any arrests were made, and the nationalities of the passengers were unknown.
Eric Lavergne, special operations supervisor with the US Border Patrol in San Diego, said this was one of a few hundred migrant smuggling events recorded in his jurisdiction this fiscal year, which is on track with comparative numbers in recent years.
These events have included incidents of people swimming, travelling by surfboard or taking panga fishing boats to cross into the US, he said.
Irregular crossings have soared under President Joe Biden, with many asylum seekers turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents and being released in the US to pursue their cases in immigration court.
A coronavirus pandemic rule scheduled to end May 11 denies migrants a chance to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19 – but its enforcement has fallen disproportionately on Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans because those have been the only nationalities that Mexico has agreed to take back.
As a result, people of those four countries have been more likely to try to elude capture, knowing they are likely to be expelled under the public health rule, known as Title 42. Mexico recently began taking back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans under Title 42.