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Trial set in Hawaii scuba fight over tropical fish

  • RENE UMBERGER / APA diver near Kona swims toward activist Rene Umberger before ripping out her air-supply regulator in this frame from a video Umberger released. Fish collectors have accused activists of harassment.
    RENE UMBERGER / AP
    A diver near Kona swims toward activist Rene Umberger before ripping out her air-supply regulator in this frame from a video Umberger released. Fish collectors have accused activists of harassment.

KAILUA-KONA >> A Hawaii man who collects and sells tropical fish for a living has pleaded not guilty to a charge of terroristic threatening for allegedly pulling the air-supply regulator out of the mouth of an anti-aquarium industry activist while underwater.

Jay Lovell did not speak during a brief arraignment Tuesday. His attorney asked for a jury trial, which is set for Sept. 11 on the misdemeanor charge, West Hawaii News reported.

The incident took place in May off Hawaii Island when activist Rene Umberger and other divers approached Lovell while he was collecting aquarium fish to sell. Umberger has said they approached with cameras to document him collecting tropical fish on the reef.

A video of the incident shows a collector quickly swimming about 30 to 40 feet toward a diver who is filming them and ripping out her air-supply regulator. A snorkeler watching from above filmed the scene with another camera.

Lovell’s lawyer, Evans Smith, told the newspaper his client was surrounded by six strangers. He claims the divers blocked his route back to the surface, and said he immediately reported it to authorities.

"He’s not the criminal here," Smith said.

A 2010 state report says Hawaii’s aquarium fish collectors reported catching more than 550,000 specimens worth $1.1 million in 2009.

About 75 percent of the aquarium fish caught in Hawaii are caught off the Kona coast, where this incident happened. Aquarium fish collecting is legal off Kona, but fisherman must avoid certain places and collect only certain species. The incident occurred in Keawaiki Bay, where collecting is allowed.

Some environmentalists want to stop aquarium fishermen, saying the trade strips coral reefs of fish that eat algae and otherwise support a healthy marine ecosystem.

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