Accused aquarium poacher pleads not guilty after lengthy reading of charges

  • Stephen Howard stands for the reading of 251 charges levied against him for illegal aquarium fish collecting Wednesday in circuit court. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

A Kailua-Kona man accused of illegal aquarium fish collection in West Hawaii Waters pleaded not guilty Thursday in Circuit Court.

At Stephen Howard’s arraignment and plea hearing Wednesday, Howard requested the reading of all 251 misdemeanor charges levied against him in connection to his Sept. 15 arrest by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement (DOCARE).

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Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Disher offered to read duplicate charges once, however, Howard, through his Public Defender Matt Sylva declined, demanding each count be read separately, which is his constitutional right.

“On or about the 15th day of September 2020 in the County and State of Hawaii, Stephen Howard while within the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area did intentionally, knowingly and or recklessly take or possess yellow tang — zebrasoma flavescens — without abiding by the requirements of the Department of Land and Natural Resources thereby committing the offense of prohibited activity within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area yellow tang — zebrasoma flavescens — in violation of section 13-60.4-5 subsection 2 and 13-60.4-7 subsection B1 of Hawaii Administrative Rules as amended” was read consecutively 93 times while Howard remained standing.

Disher and fellow Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kauanoe Jackson took turns reading the charges up until the end of the day when they reached charge 111. The hearing was continued to Thursday morning when Howard agreed to have duplicate charges read only once and entered his not guilty plea.

A jury trial was scheduled for April 6, 2021.

DOCARE Chief Jason Redulla after the September arrest stated that officers had received a tip 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,” Redulla said. “Thankfully, several hours later, the women turned up ashore at a gas station in South Kona.”

Howard is charged with one count each of no aquarium gear, no aquarium permit, boating-vessel equipment requirement, open power driven vessel certificate, resisting arrest, no flag on vessel, no AQ identification on vessel, possession of lay net less than 2-3/4 inch mesh, using unregistered lay net, no commercial marine license, aquarium fisheries nighttime taking, no vessel registration, two counts second-degree reckless endangering, two counts possessing lay net and 233 counts prohibited acts, one count for each fish collected which included yellow tang, manybar goatfish, kole, brown tang, chevron tang, agile chomis, orange band surgeonfish, multiband butterflyfish, forceps fish and ornate wrasse.

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The estimated retail value of the fish exceeds $17,000.

If found guilty of all charges, Howard faces a maximum of $502,000 in fines and three years and thirty days in jail.

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