FWC investigation finds Collier restaurant owners illegally purchasing fish

Writer: Jack Lowenstein
Published: Updated:

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation revealed local restaurant business owners agreed to buy fish from unlicensed sellers. Customers who spoke to WINK News said it’s very concerning on a safety level as well as an ethical basis.

“There’s obviously a high expectation,” said Naples resident Kyla Burnette.

Customers want to know restaurants are following the law when they are being served at an establishment.

Burnette said she was “a little freaked out” by the news that there are local restaurants following malpractice with their food purchases for their businesses.

The FWC investigation shows, in September, the owner of Mojo Thai and Sushi Bar, 33-year-old Sitthiphorn Sunthi , agreed to buy over 50 pounds of fish from an FWC officer posing as an unlicensed seller. That is illegal.

The report said Sitthiphorn didn’t ask the undercover officer for a wholesale dealer’s license or retail license, which is required to sell fish to restaurants

“Cooking fish can sometimes be cumbersome and stink up your house a little bit,” said Naples resident Kelly Ruff. “And, I really have relied upon restaurants to go out to eat and have fish.”

Ruff said it’s an area that relies on tourism and markets its seafood industry.

“It would be very bad if you started to walk into restaurants, and you couldn’t order seafood any longer in Southwest Florida because there was a potential ethical or trust issue,” Ruff said.

Another report from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office shows deputies arrested 45-year-old Stoyan Panayotov, the owner of Escargot 41, for also buying fish illegally. Another restaurant owner, 45-year-old Wen Qin Chen, was arrested for the same. WINK does not know which restaurant Qin Chen owns.

“It’s one of the most important aspects of owning a restaurant is knowing where your food comes from,” Sergio Quirarte, a local kitchen supervisor, said.

Nowhere in the reports does it say the fish from the unlicensed dealers in the above cases was unsafe or harmed customers. But, Quirarte says it’s something you never want to risk

“Especially now because of the red tide, you don’t know where that fish has been, what it’s been exposed to,” Quirarte. “And that in return could cause problems you know get people sick.”

All three of the people arrested for illegally buying fish were bonded out of Collier County Jail.

WINK reached out to the owner of the sushi place but never heard from him. WINK also reached out to Escargot 41, and the person who answered the phone said they weren’t commenting.

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