Welcome to Before You Eat That, which broaches all the annoying food subjects that make you highly uncomfortable. This is for all you schadenfreude-obsessed killjoys out there. So far, we've covered the continuing saga of all things seafood: The is-it-too-smart-to-eat octopus, the oyster and its massive gonad, the sad plight of the disappearing freshwater eel, and now onward to the magnet for all things fraud, Red Snapper.
Red snapper is one hell of a divisive fish. Among Texas anglers, big-time regulations make it a contentious subject between recreational and commercial factions. Among restaurants in America, the Congressional Research Service reported in 2015, 77 percent of red snapper being served in the country was not actually red snapper at all, with Pacific Rockfish and tilapia often used as menu counterfeits, Forbes reported last fall. In January of this year, UCLA researchers also found that among 26 Los Angeles sushi restaurants, fish labeled as tuna was always tuna, but all orders of red snapper turned out to be other fish, with DNA testing to back up those claims.
On top of this, red snapper doesn't retail for cheap. “I have an issue when you hear these commercial guys saying, ‘We’re feeding America,’” one fisherman told Texas Monthly last summer. “What common person in America is going to spend $25 a pound on a damn fish? Nobody. It’s complete bullshit." For most diners around the country, this means shelling out big money for the risk of a sham. But here in Houston, with close access to locally sourced and highly regulated Gulf red snapper, shelling out the big bucks — $45 will get you a serving of grilled or fried whole fish at Starfish; $32 is the going rate for an entrée portion at Reef — doesn't usually mean fraud, but there is yet another huge concern. The fish could be illegally caught, as was the case when game wardens busted Ruggles Black chef Bruce Molzan's seafood poaching network earlier this year for profiting off of $400,000 in unlawful catches.
“It’s a real problem. We’ve been working on cases that are in line, or some that may even be worse than this current one," says TPWD's Fred Ruiz, a direct supervisor of the wardens who busted the fishing vessel carrying more than 1,900 pounds of illegally caught finfish — including 488 red snapper— earlier this year.
While the Gulf's red snapper population is not really on the decline anymore (like David Lee Roth, red snapper reached its nadir in the late '80s but has since made a comeback), the population needs strict regulation to continue its return to glory days. Currently, the population is considered the strongest it's been since 1968, but is at risk of being over-fished, with Seafood Watch moving its grade from red to yellow.
There are a total of 550 game wardens in all of Texas, and they’re kind of like the highway patrol of the great outdoors. Wardens do everything from handing out boating DWIs to answering calls about alligators in swimming pools to policing poachers during dove and duck hunting season as well as protecting the waters of Galveston Bay from illegal fishing.
Wardens patrol the water off the coast of Texas through nine miles out. That’s 600 square miles, but you might find only about 22 game wardens in Galveston Bay on a typical day. Most work in pairs, but sometimes they're even sent out on boats alone.
In the case of Molzan's network, "it was off season and the boat was way over the limit,” Ruiz says, making the watercraft an obvious target for a finfish raid. The wardens rely heavily on tips from the public, including other fisherman, via TPWD's hotline, Operation Game Thief, to catch illegal fishing operations. The fishermen on that boat soon gave up Molzan's name. "We have evidence. We can trace this pretty easily.”
The problem is not proving the guilt here, but what the actual punishment entails. Because, as officer Ruiz notes, the state’s laws don’t always match up with the amount of damage done to Texas’s resources.
“Some people look at these as being akin to parking tickets,” Ruiz says. “But imagine if you had 73 unpaid parking tickets. Wouldn’t you expect a little more than a fine to be paid?”
In this case, the TPWD is also taking into account hundreds of thousands of pounds of protected finfish being taken from the water with the intent to sell. “If anything, it’s directly ripping off the people of Texas."
Truly sad indeed.
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When you do get an actual bite of glorious Gulf-caught red snapper, perhaps grilled whole or served a la plancha at Tampico, or served especially fresh off menu at Escalante's, or charbroiled at Red Snapper Inn, or you go for the fish collar as I once did in New Orleans at GW Fins, where it's served in these crazy chicken-wing-like bites, tempura-fried with a Korean-inspired glazed...man, it is a thing of beauty.
Speaking of New Orleans, two fishermen were busted this year outside of the city for trying to sell 69 pounds of illegal snapper off a dock, where they were also stashing meth, a couple of pipes, a rifle and a pistol. What is it about this fish, its allure, its beauty, its coral-sequined skin that seduces under the blaring spotlight of the sun like some disco dancer's hot pants, that simply turns people into giant buffoons?