HONOLULU – A filmed underwater confrontation between an environmentalist who wants to shut down the aquarium-fish industry in Hawaii and a collector who gathers the fish and sells them for a living has put a spotlight on a long-running conflict over the business.
The video shot off the west coast of Hawaii Island shows a collector quickly swimming about 30 to 40 feet toward a diver who is filming them and ripping out her air-supply regulator. A snorkeler watching from above filmed the scene with another camera.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees state waters, said it is investigating.
Rene Umberger, whose regulator was ripped out of her mouth, said she followed her training and calmly retrieved the regulator, gave it a gentle first breath to test whether it was functioning and resumed breathing.
“Doing something like that to someone – you potentially cause them to die,” said Umberger, who leads a Maui-based group called For the Fishes. “I was shocked.”
The state hasn't charged the fish collector with any violations. The activists identified him as Jay Lovell.
He couldn't be reached for comment. But his brother Jim Lovell, who also collects aquarium fish, said the activists were harassing divers and provoked a confrontation.
Hawaii's aquarium fish collectors reported catching more than 550,000 specimens worth $1.1 million in 2009, according to a state report published in 2010.
Some environmentalists are passionate about stopping aquarium fishermen, saying the trade strips coral reefs of fish that eat algae and otherwise support a healthy marine ecosystem.
Robert Wintner, executive director of the Snorkel Bob Foundation, spent five years lobbying Hawaii lawmakers for legislation to control or ban the aquarium trade, but none of the bills passed.