State authorities have fined a well-known Hawaii Island aquarium collector and his wife $272,000 for their role in what officials have described as a “bizarre” incident off the Kona Coast last fall.

The fine against Steven Howard and his wife, Yukako Toriyama, is a record amount, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The collector, Howard, was arrested Sept. 15 after leaving two divers in open water, including Toriyama, and then refusing to disclose the women’s whereabouts to DLNR division officers once they intercepted his boat on the ocean, according to the agency.

Puffer fish are common catches in the aquarium trade. Recent court rulings have barred all commercial fishing in Hawaiian waters without the proper environmental approvals from the state. Wikimedia Commons

Officers with DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement had received a tip earlier in the day that Howard was fishing in a restricted area off shore, according to DLNR. They had observed him picking up the women at Kailua-Kona Pier before intercepting him in their own boat.

Howard’s refusal to cooperate prompted a multi-agency search-and-rescue operation for the two women, according to the agency. The women were eventually found safe — on land with their diving equipment at a Kona gas station.

According to the DLNR, the women told investigators that they had left some 200 fish in a collection basket in the ocean, and that when they had surfaced Howard and the boat were gone.

The fish, valued at nearly $25,000, were recovered, documented, and released back into the ocean.

Howard and Toriyama are also facing criminal charges in Hawaii District Court, according to the DLNR.

Currently, no commercial aquarium fishing is allowed in Hawaiian waters until those operations secure the proper environmental approvals, following a series of recent state court rulings.

“The Land Board is obviously taking a strong stance against the illegal harvest of aquarium fish. I applaud our DOCARE officers for their work tracking and investigating these cases,” BLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case said in the agency’s release announcing the fine.

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