Calling the illegal actions “outrageous,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case praised the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) arrest yesterday of a West Hawai‘i aquarium fish collector. 57-year-old Steve Howard of Kailua-Kona, a well-known aquarium fisher, was arrested after a bizarre series of events that included a search and rescue operation. Howard was observed launching his boat at DLNR’s Honokohau Small Boat Harbor. When DOCARE officers were alerted, they mobilized, and followed the boat to the Kailua-Kona pier, where Howard picked up two women.
DOCARE Chief Jason Redulla picks up the story. “Our officers observed Howard’s vessel heading out to the ocean and by this time we were able to deploy our own boat. Officers intercepted Howard in South Kona off Pebble Beach near Ho‘okena. He was questioned about the whereabouts of the women who were no longer on the boat. Officers report Howard was uncooperative as they tried to determine the location of the women. His voyage was terminated due to equipment violations, and he was escorted back to Honokohau.”
The missing women prompted a multi-agency, land, air and sea search & rescue mission involving DOCARE, the Hawai‘i County Fire Dept., the Hawai‘i County Police Dept., the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. Eventually authorities received a call that two women, with full diving equipment, were spotted at a Kona gas station. They were picked up for interviews and admitted Howard had “dropped them off to go scuba diving. Ultimately the women told investigators that they’d left approximately 200 fish in a collection basket in the ocean.
A NOAA vessel located nets and other equipment used for aquarium collection on the shore and then found the ten different species of fish in the basket in the ocean. With the assistance of staff from the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), the underwater cage and the captured fish were recovered. After an accounting of the numbers of fish and species type for evidence, all of the fish were returned to the ocean. The fish had an estimated value of $17,000.
Howard faces multiple charges for resisting arrest, aquatics and equipment violations and for reckless endangerment associated with his dropping the women in the ocean.
Chair Case explained, “Aquarium collection in West Hawaii is not permitted at this time. Everyone knows the rules and the industry is under a microscope legally, procedurally, and physically. Why would anyone blatantly flaunt the law to continue to fish illegally for aquarium fish in Kona is beyond me. It’s absolutely wrong. Big kudos to our DOCARE and DAR teams, that nailed this one.”
DAR Administrator Brian Neilson commented, “These people collected 235 fish popular for the aquarium trade in a place that they all know is currently off-limits to any aquarium fish collecting. These are egregious violations and we take them very seriously.”
DOCARE Chief Jason Redulla concluded, “Beyond the impacts on our aquatic resources, the actions yesterday diverted limited law enforcement & emergency services resources into a potential search and rescue. At one time we thought we might be looking for missing or deceased divers. Who drops divers off a boat into the open ocean and then leaves in order to avoid detection?” “I’m very proud of our DOCARE officers and all of the personnel from other agencies who assisted in the search and subsequent arrest yesterday. These actions potentially endangered the lives of two divers and are clearly detrimental to the aquatic resources in West Hawai‘i. We hope the individual arrested will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”