Veteran diver Christopher Hurst, who has been studying dragon moray eels for more than 20 years, was ecstatic when he heard rumors of four of them living at Koloa Landing.
But that euphoria was decimated last month on a trip to see the wicked-looking eels, when he witnessed someone take two of them from the water in the popular dive spot.
It was 9:30 p.m. March 23. The Washington State native said he and his wife were returning to Koloa Landing after a dinner break from diving there all day. They said they intercepted the diver en route to his car with the eels, where he added them to one he already had in his trunk.
Along with the eels, Hurst said the diver had two potters angelfish, two Achilles tangs, a leaf scorpionfish, a spotted coral blennie, and two hermit crabs.
“He told me he gets $8,000 for a single mast angelfish, but kept saying that it was not good to talk too much about what he does or what he gets,” Hurst said.
Dragon moray eels can be sold for as much as $1,400 each.
Hurst said he engaged the diver in conversation without revealing his own passion for the eels, and took some undercover photographs of the creatures in the trunk, as well as of the vehicle.
He also tracked down the diver’s phone number. After a day of exchanging demands, and notifying Kauai Branch Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officer Chief Francis “Bully” Mission, Hurst said the diver agreed to return two of the moray eels to the ocean.
Hurst maintains that Mission confirmed the release. Mission was not available for comment.
But the diver wasn’t doing anything illegal, according to Deborah Ward, DLNR spokeswoman.
“There are no rules specifically regulating the take of dragon moray eels,” Ward said. “They are not a regulated species.”
She said there’s no limits on take numbers because the eels aren’t listed as threatened or endangered by state or federal law.
“We do not have species specific information on stock status of the dragon moray eel, but the aquarium take in general is not considered to be in need of further restrictions,” Ward said.
She also said the diver in question, or fisherman as he is referred to when he’s searching for aquarium creatures, has a commercial marine license and a commercial aquarium permit.
“There was no violation,” Ward said. “DOCARE had a discussion with the fisherman to clarify what the situation was, and no further enforcement action was needed.”
The fisherman could not be reached for comment and The Garden Island is not identifying him in this story.
Scott Bacon, instructor with Makana O Kauai Scuba Adventures, said he’s concerned about the practice, anyway, because it creates a conflict when it happens at popular dive spots.
“This supplier has a commercial aquarium permit allowing him to remove marine life from the reef and sell. However, I believe that marine life should not be taken from popular dive sites for aquarium collection,” Bacon said.
He said Koloa Landing is the “only place I have ever saw dragon eels on Kauai, and the only place we can actually take paying tourists to see them.”
According to Ward, a commercial marine license is required to take and sell marine life. An aquarium fish permit is required to use fine mesh traps or fine mesh nets to take fish for aquarium purposes.
She said an aquarium permit is required if a fisherman is using a small mesh net, less than two inches when stretched, greater than three feet in any dimension, including the handle.
“No aquarium permit is needed if other legal gear is used, for example, a hand net less than three feet wide does not require an aquarium permit,” Ward said.
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published on April 16,2016. Photo taken and contributed to TGI by Terry Lilley.