Reef Advocates Say Penalty for Alleged Poaching Amounts to Just 36 Cents Per Fish

June 3, 2020, 7:44 AM HST · Updated June 3, 7:44 AM
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A $200 fine, plus court fees, was the sole penalty issued yesterday by the South Kohala Court against 1 of 2 defendants charged with poaching 550 reef fish for the aquarium pet trade.

Environmental groups that have been fighting for protection of the reef from those in the aquarium trade deduced that the penalty amounts to 36 cents per animal.

The initial charges included collection of prohibited species, illegal gear (fine mesh net), in addition to failure to hold required licenses and permits. All but two of these charges were dropped through negotiations between the County Prosecuting Attorney and the defendant, who pleaded no contest and who represented himself in court.

The defendant could have faced petty misdemeanor charges which carry penalties upwards of $1000 per count and up to 30 days in jail.

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Officials with the state Division of Aquatic Resources estimated the retail market value of the illegal catch was in excess of $37,000; and expressed disappointment in the ruling, saying the sentence does not adequately match the seriousness of the crime, or discourage illegal activity in the future.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is looking at additional penalties through a civil enforcement action.  “Our natural resources hold incredible ecological, cultural, and economic value.  The maximum fine amount, as reflected in today’s court decision, does not reflect the value of the natural resources that can be lost when these laws are violated,” DLNR officials said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.

“Today’s outcome for the one defendant who showed up was far from just, far from effective prosecution, and flew in the face of the native Hawaiian community, who, with help from others, have provided dozens of tips and observations of illegal aquarium collection and related activities” said Mike Nakachi of Moana ‘Ohana, who is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner.

Rene Umberger, Executive Director of non-profit For the Fishes also commented saying, “How can such paltry fines serve as a deterrent for ongoing and illegal wildlife trafficking activities when a commercial collector stands to profit tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling off our wildlife to the highest bidder?  Thirty-six cents per animal- that’s just the cost of doing business for this destructive and unwanted trade.  It should not cost less to break the law than it does to respect and adhere to it.”

The other defendant sought a continuance of his arraignment, postponing his criminal hearing to June 30. All three defendants (one who wasn’t charged criminally) contested their administrative case before the Board of Land and Natural Resources on May 22.

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