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Local scuba divers face off over aquarium fish

By Audrey McAvoy

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 02:52 p.m. HST, May 15, 2014

A filmed underwater confrontation between an environmentalist who wants to shut down the aquarium-fish industry in Hawaii and a collector who gathers the fish and sells them for a living has put a spotlight on a long-running conflict over the business.

The video shot off the west coast of Hawaii Island 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.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees state waters, said it is investigating "complaints by two parties involved in an incident" but declined to provide details.

Rene Umberger, whose regulator was ripped out of her mouth, said she followed her training and calmly retrieved the regulator, gave it a gentle first breath to test if it was functioning and resumed breathing.

"Doing something like that to someone — you potentially cause them to die," said Umberger, who leads a Maui-based group called For the Fishes. "I was shocked."

The act could have killed a less experienced diver, said Umberger, who said she has been a dive instructor for 30 years and has been on more than 10,000 dives.

Umberger said an enforcement officer from the Department of Land and Natural Resources told her the aquarium collector had filed a complaint against her for harassment. She hasn't been served with the complaint, Umberger added.

The state hasn't charged the aquarium fish collector with any violations. The activists, who released the video this week, identified him as Jay Lovell.

His telephone number isn't listed, and he couldn't be reached for comment. But his brother Jim Lovell, who also collects aquarium fish, said the activists were harassing divers and provoked an incident.

"From what I understand, Jay was getting scared of what going on," Jim Lovell said. His brother was trying to do his job, he said.

Makani Christensen, an Oahu scuba spear fisherman who said he spoke to the brothers, said activists are trying to disrupt the work of fishermen.

"The fish go away. You can't work under the stress when you have eight different divers around you," Christensen said.

Hawaii's aquarium fish collectors reported catching more than 550,000 specimens worth $1.1 million in 2009, according to a state report published in 2010. The value of the actual catch, however, may be two to five times that amount, the report said.

The two most commonly captured species are yellow tang, which, as its name indicates, is bright yellow, and goldring surgeonfish, which are blue, yellow and rusty red with white stripes.

Fishermen off the Kona coast, where the incident occurred, account for 75 percent of the aquarium fish caught in Hawaii. 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 are passionate about stopping aquarium fishermen, saying the trade strips coral reefs of fish that eat algae and otherwise support a healthy marine ecosystem.

Robert Wintner, executive director of the Snorkel Bob Foundation, said his group set out to document what the fish collectors were doing on the dive.

Wintner spent five years lobbying Hawaii lawmakers for legislation to control or ban the aquarium trade, but none of the bills passed. The campaign is now shifting to documentation, he said.

Wintner has enlisted the help of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is best known for attacking Japanese whaling vessels off Antarctica, to help.

"Underwater is under the radar. Our entire objective is to bring a little sunshine on this, bring these facts to surface," he said.

Kona coast environmentalist Tina Owens, who has campaigned against overfishing for decades, said the incident is not typical of the area. Tensions between environmentalists and fishermen have eased significantly since fishing regulations were established under the West Hawaii Fishery Management Council, she said.

Sixteen or 17 years ago, "it used to be pretty wild" with collectors threatening tourists and fishermen threatening to "blow collectors out of the water," she said.

"Way back when, I was getting death threats and stuff like that — and now I have lunch with some of these guys," said Owens, who is executive director of the Lost Fish Coalition.

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Mediocrates wrote:
This is nothing less than first degree assault but seems like it might be attempted murder. If you walk 40 feet and then punch someone, that is first degree assault - swim that far, even more effort; do it in 50 ft of water, man that is intentional permanent harm you are looking to do to someone… no questions about it. The fact that there has been no arrest yet is deeply deeply disturbing - but as if that was not enough they are actually looking at charges against the lady who was just filming them. No harassment whatsoever in documenting what is happening to our coral reefs.
on May 15,2014 | 03:00PM
2NDC wrote:
There is a state law that the lady violated by interfering with the fishermen as they engaged in lawful activities. These activists come up with all kinds of ways to provoke a response from the folks they target, then be sure to only show the video that tells the version of the story that they want heard.
on May 15,2014 | 03:25PM
toobn wrote:
Regardless of which side of the issue you are on, ripping the regulator out of someone's mouth is a life threatening act and needs to be dealt with severely.
on May 15,2014 | 03:33PM
niimi wrote:
This is the only point that matters. The fisherman showed lack of control, lack of restraint. Jail'em!
on May 15,2014 | 04:19PM
kolohepalu wrote:
Not to mention no alas- what kind of man starts a physical confrontation with a woman?
on May 15,2014 | 06:24PM
2NDC wrote:
How did he know it was a woman? In full dive gear it's sometimes difficult to tell.
on May 15,2014 | 06:39PM
Anonymous wrote:
does it matter which sex?
on May 15,2014 | 11:32PM
2NDC wrote:
You don't dive by any chance do you? Nowhere near "life threatening".
on May 15,2014 | 06:38PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
2NDC, you sound like one of these scuba divers who collect reef fish for profit. It is no problem for an experienced scuba diver to lose his or her regulator. But for a novice, losing a regulator can cause panic especially if you're 50 ft. below the surface. The regulator, while tethered to the air tank floats up on the backside of the diver, who has to blindly reach on his side or possibly his backside. Never underestimate the serious accidents that can happen when someone panics 50 ft below the surface. That is the boarder line depth for getting the bends if he or she shoots to the surface because of a fear of drowning.
on May 15,2014 | 10:41PM
dontbelieveinmyths wrote:
Then don't harass someone doing something legal.
on May 15,2014 | 07:52PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
Taking pictures of someone who is 40 - 50 feet away from you is not harassing anyone. It was the fisherman's guilty conscience that made him attach the person filming him. Taking pictures of someone who is in public is not harassment and is totally legal.
on May 15,2014 | 10:44PM
Masami wrote:
Video and picture above shows that the aquarium fish collectors had already SET UP THEIR NETTING. Seems the lady's like the Sea Shepherd environmentalists whose tactics to "stop the killing" appear borderline criminal themselves. There's two sides to every story and it seems only her side (with accompanying video) has gotten out. If what the two aquarium fish collectors were doing is LEGAL............she should consider different tactics to "PROVOKE" dialogue.
on May 15,2014 | 03:40PM
niimi wrote:
She can film all she wants. No law against that. She's not scaring their fish away intentionally.
on May 15,2014 | 04:18PM
Masami wrote:
I can see BOTH SIDES yet I wouldn't "taunt" someone doing something LEGALLY. Yes, he's wrong to do what he did yet what happened to COMMON SENSE and not get into the face of someone? "She's not scaring their fish away intentionally."........she kinda IS and that's what escalated the situation.
on May 15,2014 | 06:01PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
2NDC, I know of no statute passed by the legislature which makes it illegal to interfere with fishermen as they engage in lawful activities. If you know the name of the law, please share it with us. Even if what you say is true, it does not justify a fisherman using lethal force against a person who is "interfering with fishermen." If the law in Hawaii allowed what you propose, a person can shoot to kill someone who is illegally playing their boom box stereo too loud (I know that there is a City Ordinance which limits the noise level of boom boxes), because that person is illegally interfering with the shooter's peace and quiet. Obviously this is not the case.
on May 15,2014 | 10:30PM
paulokada wrote:
If you can't handle having your mouth piece pulled out then you're not a certified diver? You should quit diving immediately.
on May 15,2014 | 06:25PM
2NDC wrote:
I agree. Recovering and clearing a displaced regulator is a basic SCUBA skill. Far from "life threatening".
on May 15,2014 | 06:40PM
kiragirl wrote:
Yep. No big thing.
on May 15,2014 | 08:12PM
dlg808 wrote:
Stupid move... No fish is worth killing or dying for....
on May 15,2014 | 04:24PM
lowtone123 wrote:
Ripping off a diver's breathing apparatus is wrong under any circumstance but if what they're doing is legal then Ms. Umberger could be in violation of Hawaii's hunter harassment provision. http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/stushist183D_27_5.htm
on May 15,2014 | 04:28PM
2NDC wrote:
You're on the right track. The actual statute would be HRS 188-71. There is a specific statute for harassment of fishermen.
on May 15,2014 | 06:41PM
EducatedLocalBoy wrote:
2NDC the statute you cite does not apply to this situation. HRS, Sec. 188-71 applies only to situations where a person obtained a fishing license pursuant to HRS, Sec. 188-50. HRS, Sec. 188-50 applies only to FRESHWATER fishing in a pond that has been stocked with fish.
on May 15,2014 | 11:01PM
HD36 wrote:
I gave up scuba diving in hawaii because you hardly see any fish.
on May 15,2014 | 04:51PM
2NDC wrote:
That's too bad. I have minimal difficulty finding nice fishing grounds.
on May 15,2014 | 06:42PM
HD36 wrote:
Are you fishing for food or catching small fish to sell to aquarium hobbyts?
on May 15,2014 | 07:14PM
2NDC wrote:
I go for the "big stuff" that feeds my family and friends who are either too old or otherwise cannot harvest the ocean treasures for themselves.
on May 15,2014 | 09:14PM
false wrote:
The only unlawful act from reading this account is possible attempted murder by Jay Lovell by intentionally ripping off Umberger's oxygen supply. Both sides have their agenda but attempted murder is still attempted murder no matter what the argument.
on May 15,2014 | 04:52PM
den wrote:
agree, you never mess with someone's air supply like that.
on May 15,2014 | 05:03PM
false wrote:
Boo hoo... leave em alone!
on May 15,2014 | 06:21PM
kolohepalu wrote:
So a guy physically assaults a woman, don't care where it is, under what circumstances- he's a punk. Having said that, she and her group need to get a grip- if it's not illegal, they've got no business telling another private citizen what to do- if the incident happened on land, she probably would have gotten a punch in the face.
on May 15,2014 | 06:22PM
Slow wrote:
The attacker must be prosecuted. Yes, he was probably outsmarted by the activists but he seriously misbehaved and must face the consequences. The real issue is why are we killing 550,000 reef fish a year? Animal display days are fading fast. No Shamus, no circus elephants and lions, no rows of apes in jail cells called zoos. no Sea LIfe Park, no lonely white tigers dying in a tiny zoo on the island of Hawaii. It's over, gangy. Animals are not our toys.
on May 15,2014 | 06:23PM
HD36 wrote:
Yea a fish buyer offered me $800 for a dragon eel I caught fishing. He had a buyer in China lined up. I threw it back in the water because I believe some things in Hawaii should not be for sale.
on May 15,2014 | 07:20PM
HD36 wrote:
An aquarium buyer offered me $1,500 for a rare dragon eel I hooked in Waimanalo, that he was going to sell in China. I told him no and threw it back in the water. Just me, but I believe certain things in Hawaii should not be for sale.
on May 15,2014 | 07:17PM
st1d wrote:
oh, bit by the . . . approval delay.
on May 15,2014 | 09:06PM
Anonymous wrote:
Messing with anyone's life support system is attempted murder. It's that simple. If you don't understand it, seek medical health. In terms of religion, try to remember the Golden or Silver Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
on May 15,2014 | 11:06PM
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