When you are trying to establish a case, backed up by strong scientific evidence, that collecting for home aquaria in West Hawaii waters is perfectly sustainable and should be allowed to continue, the last thing you need is an incident such as the one that occurred on Sept. 15 off Pebble Beach, close to Ho`okena. On that day, fisherman Steve Howard of Kailua-Kona was arrested for illegal fishing activities, which resulted in the return of 239 illegally collected fish, estimated to be worth around $17,000, to the sea.
This latest arrest comes hot on the tail of two others that took place earlier during the summer for similar offenses carried out within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area. While these misdemeanors carried the appropriate sentences and/or fines, the latest incident could bring considerably more serious consequences for Howard, as it involves no fewer than five alleged violations, each of which can carry a potential fine of up to $1,000 and up to 30 days in jail.
The industry has always maintained that blanket bans, whether for collecting in West Hawaii waters or relating to exports of, say, corals, inevitably result in illegal activities aimed at bypassing the imposed controls on trade. This latest incident perfectly highlights these concerns, as mentioned by Bob Likins, vice president of government affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), in an official statement issued by PIJAC following the news of the arrest.
However, before getting to the full PIJAC statement, it’s worth recording some of the main, and somewhat astounding, stages in the latest arrest. It turns out that Howard left Honokohau Small Boat Harbor on Sept. 15 and picked up two women at Kailua-Kona pier before heading out to sea, according to reports. By the time the Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) boat caught up with him off Pebble Beach, the two women had disappeared, officials reported.
After receiving no help from Howard regarding the whereabouts of the two women, the fisherman was taken back to Honokohau, whereupon a land, sea and air rescue search was launched. Sometime later, the two women—still wearing full diving gear—were seen at a gas station and were picked up by the authorities. Eventually, it was reported that they had left the fish they had collected in a basket at sea for Howard to collect.
The more you go into this story, the more fascinating, bizarre and disturbing it becomes, especially because it could have resulted in the drowning of the two women, in addition to several other misdemeanors, including the possession of illegal fishing equipment. I can’t go into all of the details here, but I strongly urge our readers to view the virtual press conference that took place in September, where various officers described the activities and possible consequences arising from Howard’s action (vimeo.com/458815763). It makes riveting viewing.
In the words of Suzanne Case, chair of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and featured in the video: “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.”
Upon receiving news of the arrest, Likins issued this statement: “The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council has learned that the Hawaii Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) has made an arrest for the illegal collection of marine ornamental fish. We applaud Hawaiian law enforcement’s diligent monitoring of the fishery and swift enforcement action against all violators of current laws.
“PIJAC supports the efforts of DOCARE and the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and continues to advocate for increased training and resources for law enforcement, both in Hawaii and around the United States. We also strongly believe, and have repeatedly testified, that a black market in fish collection is the inevitable and harmful result of banning the legal fishery. To that end, we have always worked towards, and validated with scientific data, a sustainable, well regulated, and strictly enforced fishery.
“PIJAC condemns any illegal taking of, or trading in, aquarium fish. There is no place for illegal activity within the responsible pet trade, and we will support authorities by sharing any information that we become aware of regarding illegal activities with the state.”
These sentiments are unconditionally echoed by Ornamental Fish International (OFI), whose president, Shane Willis, added, “OFI totally supports PIJAC’S statement and joins our colleagues in outright condemning all forms of illegal activities relating to fisheries and the animal trade.”
I would like to thank both PIJAC and OFI for their valuable assistance during the preparation of this report.
John Dawes is an international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He has written and/or edited more than 50 books and has contributed more than 4,000 articles to hobby, trade and academic publications. He is the editor of the OFI Journal and a consultant to AquaRealm, the trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore.