KAILUA-KONA — Sometimes the best mode of law enforcement is simply public knowledge of a crime.
That’s particularly true in the case of mass stream kill-offs — obscure agricultural crimes in remote natural areas like the one perpetrated on Hawaii Island’s Hamakua Coast in October.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) issued a press release on the incident Sunday saying its Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) believes one or several people trespassed last fall on Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden property, located north of Hilo, and dumped a bottle of Bug B Gon pesticide into the Onemea pool.
A crime of laziness, as normal modes of harvesting Tahitian prawns are legal, the perpetrators’ purpose was to capture the freshwater prawns and likely sell them to local buyers in non-standard or spontaneous marketplaces.
The collateral damage of their actions, however, included a stream bed littered with dead marine species and a decimated pond only now springing back to life seven months later.
Consumption of prawns harvested in this illegal fashion may prove harmful to humans, said DOCARE officer Edwin Shishido, who investigated the case. His message was simple.
“I want the public to know this is out there, so be careful who you buy from,” he said. “Know your source, period.”
Customers who refuse to purchase the prawns, or any similar product, from independent sellers unless they know the seller and can confirm the mode of harvest are operating in the best interest of their own health.
And they are simultaneously limiting the market for illegally caught wildlife, thereby disincentivizing practices like pesticide-induced mass stream kill-offs, said Shane Muramaru, an agricultural theft and vandalism investigator working out of the Hawaii County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
“Tahitian prawns, people will buy them, and that’s the problem,” he explained.
Muramaru recounted once being in a mechanic’s shop when a man wandered in off the street asking anyone within earshot if they were interested in purchasing opihi. He believes Tahitian prawns are moving in much the same fashion.
“I think that’s how they’re selling it because I don’t see a regular market for these things,” Muramaru said. “(Someone) just walks into someplace and nine times out of 10, somebody’s going to buy it.”
Both Muramaru and Shishido fished for the prawns in their youth, turning over rocks by hand or chasing the prawns downstream to partners who scooped them up with nets.
In the past, Shishido has heard of people employing the illegal practices of bleaching pools or electroshocking — using prongs attached to motorcycle batteries — to harvest the prawns.
The incident at Onemea pool, as well as another perpetrated last fall a little farther north, were the first time he’d seen the pesticide method, which violates state and federal laws prohibiting the introduction of any poision or pesticide into a waterway.
Shishido said DOCARE kept the investigation quiet because “we were trying to hopefully catch some people,” but ultimately there wasn’t enough evidence for prosecution.
He and DOCARE decided then to release the information over the weekend as the best mitigating option left available, which served the dual purpose of protecting public health.
Catching such criminals in the act is difficult without witnesses to immediately alert authorities, he said. Catching them after the fact is also hard because it requires expensive testing that can’t even be implemented save for exact circumstances.
“We’ve got to get (the prawns) live within so many hours from them being taken out of the water because (the poison) really breaks down in them really quick, from what I understand from the biologists,” Shishido explained.
A Hawaii Department of Agriculture inspection team has since visited several streams on the east slope of Maunakea to conduct baseline water testing to aid in any potential future investigations should another incident occur, the DLNR said.