(BIVN) – A no-contest plea and a $200 fine is not enough, says state officials and sealife advocates, in a recent case of aquarium poaching that went before a South Kohala court.
Back in February 2020, the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources announced that two men aboard the vessel “Masako” were cited by DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement at Kawaihae Small Boat Harbor, after officers say they found aquarium fishing gear, including a small mesh net, and 550 live tropical fish of various species in the vessel’s hold.
Two of the fishers aboard the vessel, Tyron T. Terazono of Kealakekua and Wayne T. Newman of Kailua-Kona, were cited by DOCARE Officers. A third person was not cited. Additionally, a 2019 Force 24 Motor Vessel and trailer, and various fishing gear were seized as evidence.
On Tuesday, an environmental court judge issued a $200 fine to Wayne Newman, who pleaded no contest. The Hawaiʻi DLNR issued this statement in response:
The Division of Aquatic Resources is disappointed that the violation of multiple State Fisheries Laws resulted in a no-contest plea and a $200 fine. We estimate the retail market value of the illegal catch is in excess of $37,000 for this single incident. The $200 Court sentence doesn’t adequately match the seriousness of the crime or discourage illegal activity in the future. Unfortunately, because this was a first offense, the maximum penalty is a $100 fine for each violation. The DLNR 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.
The non-profit For the Fishes, an organization dedicated to protecting coral reef wildlife, also expressed disappointment in a media release:
What’s the value of our reef wildlife? In the eyes of state courts, apparently less than 40 cents per animal.
A $200 fine, plus court fees, was the sole penalty issued today by the South Kohala Court against 1 of 2 defendants charged with poaching 550 reef fish for the aquarium pet trade. 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 today. The defendant could have faced petty misdemeanor charges which carry penalties upwards of $1000 per count and up to 30 days in jail.
Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth, who is currently running for Mayor of Hawaii County, describes his office’s core mission as “pursu[ing] justice with Integrity and Commitment” and ”making a difference in the fight against crime through effective prosecution strategies.” As described by the Prosecutor, effective prosecution strategies include “seeking accountability for those who violate the law in our county, providing assistance to those impacted by criminal conduct and working with the community to solve crime related problems.”
“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.
“We need strong leadership from the Prosecutor’s Office and meaningful fines issued by the court to demonstrate the State’s commitment to protect our natural resources held in the public trust,” said Rene Umberger, Executive Director of non-profit For the Fishes. “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?”
“36 cents per animal– that’s just the cost of doing business for this destructive and unwanted trade,” Umberger added. “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 for unknown reasons, wasn’t charged criminally, contested their administrative case before the BLNR on May 22nd and face fines exceeding $550,000 and revocation of their Commercial Marine Licenses.
Meanwhile, an enforcement action is still being considered by the Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources. An agenda item that recommended $114,400 in total fines assessed to all three persons involved in the February incident was withdrawn.