An underwater fracas between an aquarium fish collector and a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society last Thursday off the Kona Coast is growing more contentious, with each side accusing the other of wrong-doing.
Diver Makani Christensen is friends with a Big Island man who was gathering aquarium fish in Keawaiki Bay when he was approached and recorded by several Sea Shepherd divers. The encounter ended with the man seeming to rip the regulator out of the mouth of Rene Umberger, a local diver working on behalf of Sea Shepherd.
Christensen told KITV4 Sea Shepherd is now using its confrontational open-ocean tactics underwater. Although he doesn't condone any sort of violence, he said the two brothers were provoked.
"You know, that's just not right for another entity to come down and harass these individuals while they're diving," said Christensen. "It's their livelihood and it's a sustainable crop; it's a sustainable fishery."
In a telephone interview from his home in Woodstock, Vermont, Sea Shepherd founder Capt. Paul Watson maintains his divers did nothing wrong.
"Yeah, we carry a very dangerous weapon, it's called a camera," said Watson. "We were documenting what was happening there and one of the divers was attacked unprovoked."
However Sea Shepherd's tactics have been called into question. In February 2013 federal Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco labeled the organization "pirates" in a civil lawsuit initiated by Japanese whale hunters.
"You don't need a peg leg or an eye patch," Kozinski wrote in his opinion. "When you ram ships, hurl glass containers of acid, drag metal reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders, launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks, and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be."
Watson said the case eventually went to trial and Sea Shepherd was cleared of violating the judge's injunction. Still, the organization severed official ties with its operations in Australia so that anti-whaling efforts in Antarctica could continue beyond the reach of the U.S. court.
"This is no longer an issue," said Watson.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources is investigating last week's incident between Sea Shepherd divers and the man who was gathering aquarium fish. According to DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward he 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," Ward wrote in an email.
Sea Shepherd is demanding an arrest in the underwater scuffle, calling it attempted murder. The organization is in Hawaii as part of its initiative called Operation Reef Defense, which seeks to protect aquarium fish throughout the globe.
"Over 100 million fish are taken off coral reefs for the aquarium trade and that is having a diminishing impact on those coral reefs," said Watson.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated two brothers were gathering aquarium fish when approached by Sea Shepherd divers.