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Man Charged in ‘Bizarre’ Case of Illegal Aquarium Fishing

September 16, 2020, 4:37 PM HST
* Updated September 16, 4:39 PM
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Authorities have arrested a man on several charges involving illegal aquarium fishing in West Hawai‘i waters, after what the state Department of Land and Natural Resources described as a “bizarre series of events” that ended with a search and rescue operation for two women apparently abandoned at sea.

57-year-old Steve Howard of Kailua-Kona, a well-known aquarium fisher, was observed launching his boat at DLNR’s Honokohau Small Boat Harbor on Tuesday. DOCARE officers were notified and pursued Howard, who later stopped at the Kailua Pier and brought two women aboard his vessel.

“Our officers observed Howard’s vessel heading out to the ocean and by this time we were able to deploy our own boat,” said DOCARE Chief Jason Redulla. “Officers intercepted Howard in South Kona off Pebble Beach near Ho‘okena. He was questioned about the whereabouts of the women who were no longer on the boat. Officers report Howard was uncooperative as they tried to determine the location of the women. His voyage was terminated due to equipment violations, and he was escorted back to Honokohau.”

At that point, several agencies including Big Island police, fire personnel, the US Coast Guard, DOCARE, and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement launched a search and rescue mission. Sometime later, a call was placed to authorities saying that two women in full diving equipment had been spotted at a gas station in South Kona.

Authorities confirmed that the two women were, in fact, the two who had boarded Howard’s boat at the pier. They said he’d dropped them off to go scuba diving. At some point after, Howard apparently abandoned the women in the water.

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“Whether they swam or had other assistance, at this point that remains under investigation,” Redulla said of how the women made it safely to shore. Their role in the incident also remains under investigation.

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Howard was subsequently charged with five petty misdemeanors: possession of aquarium collection gear, expired safety equipment, no boater certificate, resisting arrest, and reckless endangerment in the second degree. Typically, possession of illegal take of aquarium fish carries penalties including jail time of up to 30 days and a fine of up to $1,000, along with administrative fees.

More charges could follow, Redulla added.

A NOAA vessel located nets and other equipment used for aquarium collection on the shore and then found the 10 different species of fish in the basket in the ocean.

Number Common Name Scientific Name
189 Yellow Tang Zebrasoma flavescens
18 Kole Ctenochaetus strigosus
11 Lavender Tang Acanthurus nigrofuscus
6 Chevron Tang Ctenochaetus hawaiiaensis
5* Agile Chromis* Chromis agilis*
2 Orangeband surgeonfish Acanthurus olivaceus
1 Multiband Butterflyfish Chaetodon multicinctus
1 Forcep Butterflyfish Forcipiger flavissimus
1* Manybar Goatfish* Parupeneus multifasciatus*
1 Ornate Wrasse Halichoeres ornatissimus
235 Total Fish
*Species not on West Hawai’i White List of previously permitted aquarium fish
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With the assistance of staff from the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), the underwater cage and the captured fish were recovered. After an accounting of the numbers of fish and species type for evidence, all of the fish were returned to the ocean. The fish had an estimated value of $17,000, said Brian Neilson, DAR administrator.

The use of fine mesh nets in aquarium fishing is banned across the state. While the practice of aquarium fishing itself remains allowed in East Hawai‘i waters and those waters off of O‘ahu, no aquarium collection is allowed off the coast of West Hawai‘i.

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

Howard’s arrest was the third such police action effected in West Hawai‘i waters this year, pointing to a potentially larger problem.

“We do track commercial sales and commercial catch of legally caught fish, but the problem when they’re illegally caught (is) those numbers aren’t recorded, those sales aren’t recorded,” Nielson said. “So it turns into a black box of unrecord catch. Tracking catch after it leaves that state can also be a challenge.”

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