AUSTIN — A Houston restaurateur and two local restaurant companies stand accused of operating an illegal seafood network that funneled nearly 28,000 pounds of unlawfully-caught finfish through their establishments at a profit estimated at more than $400,000.
Based on evidence gathered during an extensive two-year investigation, Texas game wardens believe the illegal network has been ongoing since at least 2013 and could be the largest of its kind in Texas history.
The illegal catches were made by a web of about a dozen unlicensed commercial fishermen and sold to the restaurants. Their catches consisted primarily of highly-regulated red snapper, along with other protected game fish species, including tuna, amberjack, grouper and red drum.
Texas game wardens allege that Bruce Molzan, 59, of Houston, purchased and then sold the illegal finfish off the menus at restaurant businesses he is associated with, Ruggles Black, and formerly associated with, Ruggles Green. In addition, another restaurant illegally sold shrimp to Molzan for use in his restaurants in violation of commercial fish wholesale regulations. Game wardens have issued more than 200 Class C misdemeanor citations related to the investigation thus far on an array of violations, including unlawful purchase of aquatic products by a restaurant, sales and purchases of protected finfish, operating without a wholesale fish dealer’s license and related commercial fishing-related issues. Additional cases are anticipated.
National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) special agents and the U.S. Coast Guard provided assistance in the investigation. NOAA also filed felony charges against two recreational anglers in Freeport in connection with the case.
The scope of the investigation expanded significantly last April after U.S. Coast Guard crews stopped an unlicensed commercial fishing boat in coastal waters near Freeport with 488 red snapper weighing approximately 1,900 pounds. Texas game wardens and the National Marine Fisheries Service seized the fish, which were illegally caught in the Gulf of Mexico off Freeport and Galveston, and investigators were able to link the subjects with the illegal seafood operation.
“This is a big deal and exemplifies the critically important work our Texas game wardens do to protect the state’s natural resources,” said Col. Craig Hunter, TPWD law enforcement director. “Not only did these unscrupulous actors violate recreational fishing regulations at an extreme level for personal profit, but they also circumvented restrictions and rules governing the possession, safe handling and sale of commercial aquatic products intended for human consumption. That is not something we in law enforcement will tolerate and we are confident these individuals will be prosecuted to the fullest extent the law allows.”