Illegal aquarium fishing arrest prompts search and rescue mission

  • File-This undated file photo from Oregon State University shows a school of yellow tang off the coast of Hawaii. (AP Photo/Oregon State University, Bill Walsh,File)

  • Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources Administrator Brian Neilson said the fish had a retail market value above $17,000. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Steve Howard of Kailua-Kona was arrested on Tuesday and charged with five misdemeanor violations, including resisting arrest and reckless endangerment, stemming from an incident involving the illegal collection of aquarium fish. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Another arrest has been made for illegal aquarium fishing in West Hawaii waters.

Steve Howard of Kailua-Kona was arrested on Tuesday and charged with five misdemeanor violations, including resisting arrest and reckless endangerment. The Department of Land and Natural Resources was able to return the 239 allegedly illegally harvested reef fish to the wild.

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“Those reef fish made up 10 different species,” said the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources administrator Brian Neilson. “We estimated the retail market value of the catch at above $17,000.”

The DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) Chief Jason Redulla stated that officers had received a tip earlier in the day and conducted surveillance of Howard’s activities after departing Honokohau Small Boat Harbor. Prior to his arrest off the shore of South Kona, Howard had picked up two women from the Kailua-Kona pier before departing back out to sea; the two women were not aboard Howard’s boat at the time of the arrest, prompting a search and rescue mission.

“Units of the Hawaii County Police Department and Fire Department, as well as the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, responded to conduct a search of the area,” said Redulla. “Thankfully, several hours later, the women turned up ashore at a gas station in South Kona … They were interviewed by officers, and their role in this incident continues to be under investigation.”

Howard currently faces misdemeanor charges of possession of aquarium collection gear within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area, expired safety equipment, not having a boater’s certificate, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment in the second degree; each carries the potential penalty of a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 30 days in jail.

Redulla maintained that DOCARE’s investigation is ongoing, and other charges could be levied in the future.

“Mr. Howard’s alleged illegal activity is outrageous,” said DLNR Chair Suzanne Case. “Everyone knows the rules, and the industry is under a microscope legally, procedurally and physically. Why anyone would blatantly flaunt the law to continue to fish illegally for aquarium fish in Kona is beyond me.”

Howard’s arrest follows the Aug. 27 arrest of Jason Beevers and Sept. 8 sentencing of Tyron T. Terazono for illegal collection of aquarium fish in the WHRFMA. Wayne Newman, who was arrested with Terazono, pleaded no contest and paid a $200 fine in June.

The Hawaii Supreme Court halted aquarium fishing in West Hawaii waters in September 2017; no permits have been issued since. An environmental impact statement proposed by aquarium fishers to reopen West Hawaii’s coastal waters to 10 commercial aquarium fishers was unanimously rejected in May by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The uptick in these arrests this year has prompted increased concern on the Big Island.

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“This case makes six separate aquarium collectors charged in the past seven months for criminal activity/poaching in West Hawaii,” said Inga Gibson, policy director for Pono Advocacy.

“Illegal collection of aquarium fish in West Hawaii is turning into a persistent problem,” Neilson added. “This is the third arrest that we’ve seen associated with illegal aquarium harvest just this year, which indicates this is a larger of problem that the department’s going to need to deal with… We’re looking at measures we can take to try to address the problem.”