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June 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 29, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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An Underwater Attack Makes World Headlines

and shows the tension over Hawaii’s aquarium fish trade

from the June, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When she jumped into the waters off the island of Hawaii on May 8, Rene Umberger, a Mauibased divemaster and environmentalist, didn't realize she would come back up with video footage that would get media attention around the globe. Nor did she suspect another diver would threaten her life while underwater. But that filmed underwater confrontation between Umberger, who wants to shut down the aquarium-fish industry in Hawaii, and Jay Lovell, who makes a living collecting fish for the aquarium trade, has put a brighter spotlight on the aquarium-fish industry and the longrunning conflict over its practices.

Umberger, who has written for Undercurrent, is director of For the Fishes, a marine advocacy group that wants to ban aquarium-fish collecting in Hawaii. She asked Sea Shepherd, famous for its get-tough ways to protect marine life, to help her organization document the conditions on Hawaii's reefs and how fish collecting is affecting them. Sea Shepherd, which runs its aquarium-fish protection initiative, Operation Reed Defense, out of Hawaii, agreed to do so. Together, they chartered a boat from a local dive operator for a two-day mini-expedition to capture video footage of fishermen capturing sea life on the reefs. Umberger was one of three divers, another five were snorkelers.

On the first day, May 7, they filmed a moray eel collector who used giant lobster traps to catch them. "It's completely legal, and there are no limits on how many to catch," Umberger told Undercurrent. "And he goes into areas that are closed to the aquarium fishers. He may be selling them to the Asian aquarium trade, because there is a growing demand for eels over there."

On day two, the group cruised along Hawaii's Keawaiki Bay and came across a boat they knew was an aquarium-collecting boat, because someone had taken photos of it earlier in the year doing major damage to pristine coral with its anchor and chain. "We also photographed them crawling through coral, wearing kneepads, to chase and capture fish," Umberger says. "We had an idea of what we were going to see in the water. We had photo images, now we wanted film."

Her group of three divers descended and started looking for bubbles. They found two collectors, at 50 feet, with their backs to them. Umberger saw one man pulling small yellow fish, probably yellow tangs, out of the reef with a slurp gun and into a small net. The other man had his hands full of the yellow fish as he stuffed them into larger holding containers that lay right on top of the coral. Then she started filming.

"We moved toward them, but I never got closer than the moment you see my camera turn on," she says. "The one guy [pulling fish out of the reef] turned, saw us and snapped. With no warning, no gesture, he jammed over to me. I am holding my GoPro in front of me, thinking, 'Surely you see I am filming this.' I didn't think he was going to do anything crazy. I expected him to stop and maybe gesture. It never entered my mind that he would rip my regulator out of my mouth. That was a shock. He never even went for the camera, he went straight for my regulator, then turned and swam away." "

Umberger, who has made thousands of dives, calmly retrieved her regulator and resumed breathing. Then the man picked up one of the six-foot-long sticks used to scare fish out of the reef. "He aggressively gestured and started moving toward us," Umberger says. "I thought, 'Oh, this may not be over yet.' So we went backwards and started surfacing. We got the heck out of there because we didn't want to have an altercation; these guys were crazy. They followed us up slowly. When they got to the surface and saw they were being filmed, the [non-attacker] guy waved. They later told the press that they were afraid for their lives, but they had no idea who we were."

"They know it's damaging to the industry when its practices are filmed. . . They haven't charged anyone. That guy who attacked me is still out there."

Umberger called the police as soon as the boat got back to the harbor. But within 10 minutes of taking her statement, Umberger said, investigators started blaming her for the attack. "They asked, 'What were you doing, filming them?' and 'If you didn't have a camera, this wouldn't have happened.' What I didn't realize was they had already been alerted. The guys called law enforcement officers to say, 'Expect to get a call from some woman who was harassing us.'"

Umberger doesn't understand why the police turned over her case, which involved someone who tried to cause her bodily harm, to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), i.e., "the fish police." "It was the wrong thing to do, [however], they are very supportive of the fish collectors," she says.

That same day, the DLNR said they were going to charge Umberger for harassing a fisherman, and would also charge him with reckless endangerment. "Naturally, I was in disbelief that they would charge me, because I don't know how you harass someone from 30 feet away and in under 21 seconds," she says.

She cites a case from three years ago when a divemaster with a group of divers came across an aquarium collector with his anchor chain in coral, took photos of him and the anchor, and posted them on Facebook. The DLNR charged the divemaster for harassing a fisherman, but the court threw out the case because the charge had no merit. "But this is how Hawaii operates," Umberger says. "They use that law to intimidate people. They know it's damaging to the industry when its practices are filmed or photographed. And they haven't charged anyone. That guy who attacked me is still out there."

The DNLR told Undercurrent it is investigating "complaints by two parties involved in an incident," but declined to provide details. Spokeswoman Deborah Ward said the fisherman has a state aquarium permit, but she could not confirm whether he also has a West Hawaii aquarium permit. Both are needed to legally take fish from Keawaiki Bay. "Holders of an aquarium permit may only take certain species, and there are daily bag limits for Achilles tang and certain sized kole," she wrote in an email. DLNR wrote to Hawaii news station KHON, "Our investigation is continuing."

Meanwhile, Umberger's group released the video of the incident and identified her attacker as Jay Lovell. He wouldn't talk to the media, but his brother, Jim Lovell, who also collects aquarium fish, said that the activists were harassing divers and provoked an incident with someone just trying to do his job.

You wouldn't think that a fisherman and diver with years of experience would be scared and panicking at the sight of divers with small cameras, but that's what Jim Lovell said his brother was experiencing. "He didn't know what they were doing to his boat up above," he told reporter Tim Sakahara at Hawaii News Now. "There were six or eight people." He says he too has been harassed by people he calls eco-terrorists who have prevented him from working and called his home. "My [daughter] was eight when she listened to the recording that said daddy is a rapist, you're a f------ reef rapist. I shouldn't have to tell an eight year old girl, let alone my daughter, what a rapist is."

He says he fears the Sea Shepherd environmentalists, and so do other fishermen in West Hawaii. "People are afraid, they're afraid for their boats and for their lives in some cases because of the reputation Sea Shepherd has," said Bob Hajek, head of the 30-member Big Island Association of Aquarium Fishermen.

But Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson maintains the divers did nothing wrong. "Yeah, we carry a very dangerous weapon, it's called a camera," he told Hawaii news station KITV. "We were documenting what was happening there, and one of the divers was attacked unprovoked."

Now the situation may escalate. Some reef fisherman said they planned to carry bang sticks and defend themselves, even though they have been the first to get physical. Hajek says he met with a group of reef fishermen the week after the Umberger incident and is trying to keep tensions from boiling over. "We told anyone who had that idea, that is not the way to go, but there are a lot of people coming from different angles on ways to handle this."

The fishermen also plan to get their own underwater cameras, to show their side of any future confrontations. "We would like to just see some separation so that we can feel safe going out and doing our job and going to work in the morning," said Lovell.

According to a 2009 state report, Hawaii's aquarium fish collectors reported catching more than 550,000 specimens worth $1.1 million that year, but the value of the actual catch may be two to five times that amount. The two most commonly captured species are yellow tang and goldring surgeonfish. 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 fishermen must avoid certain places and collect only certain species. Collecting is allowed in Keawaiki Bay, where Umberger was attacked.

Environmentalists have spent 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. Meanwhile, Hawaii says the industry is sustainable. A representative from Governor Neil Abercrombie's office attended the mid-May meeting with the fishermen, although the administration is just observing the situation and has not taken a position.

Tina Owens, executive director of the Hawaii-based Lost Fish Coalition who has campaigned against overfishing for decades, told the Associated Press that the Umberger 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 years ago, "it used to be pretty wild," she said, with collectors threatening tourists, and fishermen threatening to "blow collectors out of the water." "Way back when, I was getting death threats, and now I have lunch with some of these guys."

Nevertheless, ripping a regulator out of a diver's mouth is on the extreme side of confrontation, edging on attempted murder, which the Sea Shepherd group is demanding the police charge Lovell with. In a letter to the editors of West Hawaii Today, P. Hansen writes, "As a certified scuba diver, I can't think of anything much scarier or more dangerous than having my regulator pulled from my mouth. How is it possible this man hasn't been arrested for attempted manslaughter? There's no excuse for physically attacking someone just because he or she is observing your activities. It's lucky that Rene Umberger knew what she was doing. A less experienced diver might now be dead."

In the meantime, the DLNR says studies show that the practice of fish collecting is sustainable, and its rules in place for the West Hawaii aquarium fishery are good enough. Owens agrees. "There are people who are trying to make it look like we have a crisis on the reefs in West Hawaii. We don't."

"We showed state enforcement officers my video, and they responded, 'Wow, he really did come at you from a distance,'" says Umberger. "But that did not change their minds, and I doubt any media attention can help [the Hawaii government] do so. What people can do to help is when they see reef fish in tanks, remember that they are wildlife that was captured and harmed in the process. The violence this guy unleashed on me, that's the energy associated with this trade. It's not pretty."

But the Umberger assault is bringing the tension brewing in Hawaii onto a national and world stage. And Lovell, by attacking Umberger, took the bait and did exactly what environmentalists needed to reel in attention to their cause.

-- Vanessa Richardson

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