State conservation officers on Tuesday arrested a well-known aquarium fish collector from Hawaii island after what they called a bizarre series of events leading to a search and rescue operation as well as the release of hundreds of fish trapped underwater.
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said Steve Howard, 57, of Kailua-Kona, was arrested for several violations, including the illegal possession of aquarium collection gear, resisting arrest, and reckless endangerment, among other charges.
“Mr. Howard’s alleged illegal activity is outrageous,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said Thursday during a virtual news conference. “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 anyone would blatantly flaunt the law to continue to fish illegally for aquarium fish in Kona is beyond me. It’s absolutely wrong.”
Aquarium fishing is not allowed in the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area until an environmental review is completed — but is currently allowed elsewhere in Hawaiian waters as long as no fine-mesh nets are used, according to a 2017 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling.
Many environmentalists, however, say there is little oversight of the ongoing illegal collection of the fish under current rules.
On Tuesday, state Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers were first alerted of Howard’s intentions to illegally collect aquarium fish in the area, according to Chief Jason Redulla.
Officers kept surveillance on Howard as he left Honokohau Small Boat Harbor, tracking him to the Kailua-Kona pier, where he picked up two women. When his boat headed out to sea again, they deployed a patrol boat and intercepted him off of Pebble Beach in South Kona.
Upon inspection of his boat, officers found aquarium fish collecting gear aboard, as well as expired flares, and determined there was no boater certificate.
Officers questioned him about the whereabouts of the two women who were no longer on board, but he was uncooperative. This prompted a multi-agency, land, air and sea search and rescue mission including Hawaii County Fire and Police Departments and the U.S. Coast Guard.
A few hours later, the two women were located at a Kona gas station, with full diving equipment.
Based on information they shared, authorities returned to the site and found submerged pens containing hundreds of illegally harvested reef fish.
Brian Neilson, state Division of Aquatic Resources administrator, said divers found 239 reef fish representing 10 different species worth an estimated $17,000 at the site, along with illegal fishing gear.
Following documentation, all were returned to the wild.
“Illegal collection of aquarium fish in West Hawaii is turning into a persistent problem,” said Neilson. “This is the third arrest that we’ve seen associated with illegal aquarium harvest in West Hawaii just this year which indicates this is a larger problem the department’s going to need to deal with,” said Neilson. “These types of incidents are bad for the reef, bad for Hawaii and they’re bad for the industry. We certainly don’t want to see any more of these poaching incidents happening in West Hawaii and we’re looking at measures we can take to try to address the problem.”
The role of the two women in the incident remains under investigation, Redulla said.
Redulla said Howard’s charges are considered petty misdemeanors, with punishment of up to 30 days in jail, fines up to $1,000, or both, along with other administrative fees.