Conflict between environmentalists and reef fisherman runs deep

Conflict between environmentalists and reef fisherman runs deep

KONA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - The underwater assault caught on camera on the Big Island is making waves nationwide and its sparking more debate between environmentalists and aquarium fish collectors.

The conflict between the two sides is quite passionate and it isn't expected to end anytime soon.

The video clearly shows one diver dart toward another. Rene Umberger was holding the camera about 50 feet underwater. The suspect then rips her regulator out of her mouth taking away her ability to breathe.

"The reaction of the diver was completely out of the question outrageous," said Tina Owens, LOST FISH Coalition Executive Director.

That's been the reaction by most. But Umberger says the State investigator told her they plan to file charges against her for harassing a fisherman, even though she says she never got close to him or touched his equipment.

The State didn't comment.

Neither did numerous fishermen who say they are scared of retaliation by the environmentalists. I also spoke with the suspect's brother who said their lawyer advised them not to talk.

We're told some of the fish collectors on the Big Island are meeting today to go over ways of handling themselves when the environmentalists are near, specifically not to turn to violence.

The conflict between environmentalists and aquarium fish collectors has been going on for years. Tina Owens originally wanted a ban on the fishing.

"I had my life threatened a couple of times," said Owens. "It got to be kind of wild west. People were threatening each other from both sides. It got to be very very ugly."

That was back in the mid 90's. Then in 1998 the state passed a law making some areas of West Hawaii off limits for reef fishing.

"We have rules in place specifically for the West Hawaii aquarium fishery. Studies have shown it is sustainable," said William Aila, State Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman, in a written statement.

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. There is no crisis," said Owens.

But incidents like the assault highlight the tensions. Some say the diver who attacked took the bait and did exactly what environmentalists needed to reel in attention to their cause.

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