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Fish collecting ban advocate attacked while filming reef

May 15, 2014 - 12:20pm

The Department of Land and Natural Resources’ enforcement officers are investigating an incident last week in which one diver apparently attacked another.

Maui resident Rene Umberger was diving at Keawaiki on Thursday, documenting the reef and two aquarium fish collectors at work, when one of the fish collectors noticed her and began swimming toward her.

“I was 30 or 40 feet away, approaching slowly,” Umberger said Monday. “He turns around and he snaps. With no warning, he charges me. He swam up and went straight for my regulator and ripped it out of my mouth.”

Umberger, a former dive instructor and dive guide, said she was able to react quickly to prevent the situation from becoming worse. She was about 50 feet below the surface when the incident happened.

“Any diver will tell you that (losing a regulator) has and does kill people,” she said, adding that if the person who attacked is who Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers told her friends he was, he is a licensed diver. “He did that knowing what it means.”

When she reached the surface, she called police to report the incident. The police forwarded the report to DOCARE, she said. DOCARE has jurisdiction over incidents that happen in the ocean.

Umberger provided a video of the attack to DOCARE. The video clearly shows a diver seeing her and swimming toward her. Another video, taken by another diver, shows Umberger approaching two fish collectors.

Umberger has been heavily involved in working to limit tropical fish collecting in Hawaii. She was joined Monday by Robert Wintner, of Snorkel Bob’s. A press release from Snorkel Bob’s alerted the media to the incident. According to that press release, DOCARE had cited a fish collector for reckless endangerment and intended to cite Umberger for harassing a fisherman.

According to the press release, the fish collector “claimed that Umberger had affected the behavior of yellow tangs and other exotic reef fishes he was scooping into his container. He and another aquarium collector were using ‘tickle’ sticks about 8 feet long to scare colorful fish from their hiding places.”

The press release named the fish collector, but West Hawaii Today is witholding the name because the charges had not been confirmed as of press time.

A DLNR spokeswoman Monday morning said she was unlikely to be able to provide information on the incident or confirm the report, noting the situation was still under investigation. She did not provide additional information as of press time Monday.

Umberger questioned the information provided to other divers, allegedly by DOCARE officers, that the other diver would face reckless endangerment charges and a felony charge.

Prosecuting Attorney Mitch Roth said Monday he was aware of the incident, which has not yet been submitted to his office for prosecution. He also responded to questions about the potential charges the alleged attacker could face. Assault, under state law, requires someone to physically injure another person, he said. Reckless endangerment is “putting in a place of danger of death or injury,” Roth said.

Both charges are misdemeanors.

Wintner, in the press release, criticized the fish collector’s response to being filmed.

“How many places sell or rent cameras to divers and snorkelers,” he said. “The reef at Keawaiki is designated open. It’s part of Hawaii’s public trust and not a private reserve for aquarium collectors who demand that nobody watch them.”

Umberger said she recognized the boat as one that had been filmed by West Hawaii residents off the South Kona coast. She said she thought the collectors “were used to” being filmed.

She said she has not yet been cited.

Another West Hawaii dive instructor was cited for harassing a fisherman in 2011, after she reported he was allegedly anchoring his boat on coral off the Kohala coast. That diver also provided photos of the incident. The charges against her were later withdrawn at court. No record of that fish collector being prosecuted could be located Monday.