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Stop shark tour boat violence

Hostility over shark tours off Oahu’s North Shore seems to have turned violent with the likely arson of three tour boats at Haleiwa Boat Harbor. Haleiwa businesses have offered a reward for information leading to an arrest an important step, but other measures are needed to prevent further attacks.

After the first blaze just after midnight on Jan. 7, destroying a 30-foot, $225,000 North Shore Shark Adventures tour boat, a member of a North Shore group of surfers accused the shark tour boat companies of "bringing it upon themselves" because of their "total disrespect" of sharks considered aumakua, or ancestral gods, by native Hawaiians. That view is beyond disturbing.

The tour companies, which lower guests outfitted with masks and snorkels into the water in cages to view snarks, have been accused of feeding sharks to make them accessible. Shark feeding within three miles off shore is a petty misdemeanor under state law, but per diem District Judge Christopher McKenzie dismissed charges against five current or former employees of North Shore Shark Adventures or the other shark tour boat company, Hawaii Shark Encounters. The cases fell apart on Jan. 20, when federal agencies declined to submit secret documents used to track the location of shark tour boats.

Four days later, a similar North Shore Shark Adventures tour boat fire was deliberately set after midnight, also causing damage estimated at $225,000, according to investigators. The third fire last Thursday night damaged the cabin and deck of the company’s 35-foot shark tour boat on a trailer in the harbor’s trailer yard, causing damage estimated at $100,000, and $20,000 to a private boat on a nearby trailer.

While investigating fire of a boat is difficult, experts say the cause can be determined, even if the boat has been destroyed all the way down to the waterline. Much of the information to be collected can come from nearby residents. They should call CrimeStoppers at 955-8300. The Coast Guard, firefighters and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the probe.

The controversy surrounding shark tour boats will not go away. Shark Adventures owner Joe Pavsek said he recently bought a 42-foot vessel from Kauai to begin rebuilding his fleet, which now consists of only that one boat. Shark Encounters has a single boat.

Community members, leaders and business owners gathered at the Haleiwa harbor last weekend to denounce the crimes. Rightly so: Violence should not be the way to make a political point, regardless of one’s feelings about the shark tours.

Seventeen Shark Adventures employees have lost work hours because of the damage and other North Shore businesses have been harmed by the reduction in visitors. The community needs to step up vigilance to catch the criminals, and should look into the possibility of installing surveillance cameras or posting overnight volunteer security guards.

Outright criminality stemming from the controversy over shark tours goes far beyond accusations that the tour companies feed sharks, which they deny. The companies’ accusers have been tarnished by the open lawlessness "domestic terrorism," Pavsek rightly called it. Anyone with any knowledge of the arsons and any sense of pono must do the right thing: Provide information to law enforcement agencies.

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