Interview with Rene Umberger - Scuba Diver who was attacked underwater
Scuba Diver Attacked:
Interview with Rene Umberger
By Scott Gietler, May 19th, 2014
Attacked underwater by a diver
On May 8th, 2014, Rene Umberger was diving underwater in Kona, Hawaii with several other divers, when another diver suddenly rushed towards her and forcefully removed her regulator, removing her only source of air. Luckily Rene survived the event, and was able to tell her story. But what led up to this shocking underwater assault? We spoke with Rene on the phone to find out more details.
Interview with Rene Umberger
Scott: Rene, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Rene: Hi Scott. I live on the island of Maui, and I run the non-profit forthefishes.org. Our mission is to protect the marine life and coral reefs of Hawaii, and help bring public awareness to dwindling fish population due to collecting for aquariums.
Scott: Tell us what happened underwater on May 8th.
Rene: I was on a private boat with 6-8 friends of mine. Three of us were diving, the rest were snorkeling. We descended down to videotape the coral reefs and see if there was any activity going that was harmful to the reefs that we could document.
Scott: Please continue.
Rene: When we got down to 50ft depth, I saw in the far distance 2 divers who appeared to be collecting fish for the aquarium trade. They use distinctive nets, so it is easy to tell when this is going on. Visibility was quite good, and they also saw us. Before we could get near them, one of the divers swam towards us as fast as he possibly could, and ripped the regulator out of my mouth.
Scott: Then what happened?
Rene: After about 30 seconds, I luckily managed to find my regulator and get my air source back. I was unable to breathe during that time. The diver then made several threatening gestures, and I was in grave fear of my life. At that point I slowly swam to the surface.
Scott: And this was all captured on video tape?
Rene: Yes, I was videotaping the entire event. It was also witnessed and videotaped by about 3 other divers, and 3 snorkelers.
Scott: Had you ever had contact with this diver before?
Rene: No, I had never seen him before. I had just entered the water, so this was the first moment that he ever laid eyes on me. He didn't know who I was, what I was doing there, or what my experience level was. Another diver could have panicked, shot to the surface and died. Luckily I have over 10,000 dives as was able to remain calm and ascend in a safe manner.
Scott: Why do you think he attacked you?
Rene: Aquarium collectors don't like people to see what they are doing. They feel that if people are aware of their harmful activities, they may pass laws to restrict their trade, which is currently fairly unrestricted. Also, I suspect because of his behavior that he may have been doing illegal activity.
Scott: Is aquarium collecting illegal?
Rene: Aquarium collectors must have the right permits, the correct flags and identification on their boats, and collect in the proper manner. If they are following all the rules, it is extremely unrestricted. They can remove unlimited numbers of fish which can decimate the reefs. Kona exports more aquarium fish than the entire Great Barrier Reef! And who does this benefit? Almost no one.
Scott: So you document this activity to help bring awareness to it?
Rene: Yes, my hope is that people will become outraged that their marine resources are being pillaged in this manner and demand for the situation to change.
Scott: Do you know who attacked you underwater?
Rene: I'm told it was someone named Jay Lovell. After I was attacked, he called DOCARE to let them know to expect a call from "some woman" who had been harassing them, and then he had the nerve to file a harrassement claim against me!
Scott: A claim against you, how is that possible?
Rene: There is an obscure law that says it is illegal to enter an area and approach a fisherman with the intent to prevent fisherman from taking fish. This law only applies to fresh water fishing, and a similar complaint by an aquarium collector who was photographed underwater on the Big Island was thrown out of court several years ago. Anyways, I certainly was not going to prevent him from doing anything, only document it.
Scott: What other type of harmful activity have you been documenting?
Rene: Just a couple of days earlier, we documented giant lobster traps that wipe out all the big eels in an area. This is legal! There is no limit on the number of reef fish you can take, whether you collect with nets or traps.
Scott: I'll embed the eel video at the end of this article. Just to confirm - you had never seen him before, and this was the first contact with him, and the closest contact was shown on the video?
Scott: How many aquarium collectors are there, and how does the community feel about them?
Rene: There are 30 guys who report their catch to the state. there is no-one checking them. In fact, enforecement officers dont even check their containers. I ask the question - what is best for the survival of the reef, and the communities? The state says that this activity is sustainable, but many species are down by 50 - 99%, the state calls it "sustainable" if the species is reduced but not wiped-out. What is the benefit to the community? There isn't one. The community is against the aquarium trade but, they can only speak up so much. People are afraid of these guys.
Scott: Tell us about what else you are doing to bring awareness to the harmful effects of Aquarium collecting
Rene: I am going to launch a phone app for quick identification of fish in aquariums, focusing on whether the fish is captured wild or potentially captive bred. It is coming later this year! It is called TankWatch - the purpose is to bring awareness that most tropical fish are captured from the wild, and also to identify what species they are.
Scott: Rene, thanks for the time, and please stay safe underwater.
Video of Rene being attacked:
Video Showing Eels Being Legally Captured & Removed from the Reef in Kona, HI:
Rene is such a dedicated reef cleanup diver that she didn't even come out of the water for lunch.
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