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Game Wardens Crack Down on Illegal Fish Trade in Houston

AUSTIN — State game wardens issued more than 150 citations to 19 fish markets and restaurants in the Houston area that illegally purchased game fish from undercover officers during a recently completed sting conducted by the Special Operations unit of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Law Enforcement Division.

During the two-year operation, wardens in plain clothes offered to sell more than a dozen different Texas saltwater species including spotted sea trout, red drum (redfish), red snapper, southern flounder, black drum, catfish and croaker to seafood markets and restaurants along the upper Texas coast.

Of concern is the heightening demand for these aquatic resources, particularly highly-regulated red snapper, which led to this enhanced law enforcement intervention. Commercial harvest of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico is strictly managed and monitored to ensure the long-term health of the fishery. Catches are tracked against an annual poundage quota limit, and red snapper sold into the market outside the legal system pose threats to the resource, as well as the commercial fishing industry that depends on it.

Evidence that some businesses are willing to work outside the law to obtain product, nearly half of the 40-plus businesses approached during the operation agreed to illegally purchase game fish. A similar undercover operation conducted by Texas game wardens between 2010-12 resulted in illegal purchases by only nine of 42 businesses targeted.

“Our objective with this operation was to identify and through law enforcement intervention disrupt the influx of illegal fish trade,” said Maj. Chris Davis, who heads TPWD’s law enforcement special operations. “About half of those we approached said no, so that was encouraging. But, many businesses were eager to buy aquatic products illegally, and wanted to place orders for more.”

Davis said wardens received tips from various sources identifying businesses known to purchase fish under the table, and began approaching those businesses using aquatic product seized from other cases. The risks extend well beyond conservation of the resource.

“Not knowing where the fish came from, how they were handled, poses potential health risks for the buyer and the end user,” stressed Col. Grahame Jones, TPWD Law Enforcement Division director. “Without documentation of when that fish was caught, there are no guarantees, and that gives those who participate legally in the industry a bad rap.”

The 150 Class C misdemeanor citations related to the investigation thus far included an array of violations, including unlawful purchase of aquatic products by a restaurant, operating without a wholesale fish dealer’s license and related commercial fishing-related issues. Additional cases are anticipated.