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The challenges of protecting Hawai'i's coral reefs

Coral reefs worldwide are being threatened by several factors, including global warming, overdevelopment, poor fishery management and increases in water-based recreation activities. Hawai’i is no exception.

Of particular concern in this state is an exploding tourism market coupled with unparalleled growth. Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist with the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources is hesitant to label it a ‘gloom and doom situation,’ but adds that absent some sort of intervention, Hawai’i’s reefs could experience the same large-scale destruction as other areas, such as the Philippines and Costa Rica.

The bottom line is that Hawai’i’s reefs are, on average, experiencing a slow but definite loss of productivity, says Hannah Bernard, executive director of the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, a nonprofit organization working to preserve Hawai’i’s native wildlife through research, education and conservation efforts.

Moreover, because Hawai’i’s coral reefs are unique to the world, their destruction can have irreparable consequences.

What sets Hawai’i’s reefs apart from those worldwide is their distance from any large land mass. That extreme isolation can be both good and bad. On one hand, global stressors have a less pronounced impact here when compared to reef systems closer to continental bodies.

For example, reefs often undergo what’s referred to as bleaching episodes, where the symbiotic relationship between a reef’s algae and the zooxanthellae–an organism that lives within a reef’s algal structure–breaks down. The reef’s release of the zooxanthellae, leads to a completely white–or bleached–appearance. Although bleaching can be a response to normal stressors, scientists are attributing the recent rise in such occurrences to global warming, says Bernard. While a major bleaching episode in the late 1990s destroyed coral reefs across the globe, Hawai’i was relatively unharmed.

On the other hand, once a plant or fish species becomes endangered in Hawai’i, it is extremely difficult to replenish its supply. ‘It’s estimated that once every 70,000 years a new species succeeded in colonizing Hawai’i,’ Bernard says. That’s because species who make it to Hawai’i have to swim or float long distances under incredibly harsh conditions. Low survival rates among coral species also makes Hawai’i unique, so much so that this state’s waters are home to more endemic species–or organisms found nowhere else in the world–than anywhere on Earth.

Interestingly, it is Hawai’i’s geographic isolation that make the state’s reefs easier to study than those located closer to larger land masses. That is, while this state has only about 40 species of reef building corals, the Western Pacific island of Palua has more than 300, according to an article by Brian Tissot, a former marine scientist at the University of Hawai’i’s Hilo campus, on the Hawai’i Coral Reef Network website.

Few people realize, Bernard says, that reef systems are often as, if not more, diverse than rainforests. Their degradation can lead to catastrophic damage. Economically speaking, compromised reefs make it more difficult for fishermen dependent on coral reef fish to make a living and squeeze state agencies responsible for monitoring fishing limits and other regulations.

Nor can damaged reefs protect nearby land masses from severe weather as well as healthy ones. For example, says Tissot, both Kona on the Big Island and O’ahu’s south shore often get hit by hurricanes. While Kona still recovers relatively quickly, O’ahu takes considerably longer.

Coral reef degradation on O’ahu is particularly pernicious, due to the island’s large population, says Eric Co, the Hawai’i Nature Conservancy’s marine coordinator. To make way for new structures, developers must clear lands, which allows for more chemicals and other waste products to leech into the soil and contaminate the ocean.

Compounding the problem are government policies that tend to prioritize land-based concerns over water-based ones. That puts ocean advocates in an ‘adversarial relationship with ocean users,’ says Walsh. The reason? Once a project moves forward and begins to hurt waterways, all Walsh and his colleagues can do is limit ocean-goers’ access to the water. Such is the case at Hanauma Bay where visitor numbers are carefully monitored. ‘When we try to do things in the ocean it’s always after the fact,’ Walsh says. ‘The ocean doesn’t exist by itself.’

What Hawai’i needs, says Walsh, is a government agency that oversees water quality. ‘The Division of Aquatic resources, its jurisdiction are the resources in the water, but not the water,’ he says.

On paper, at least, the Department of Health should be in charge of such monitoring procedures, but it has traditionally focused its efforts on human health and mitigating waterborne diseases. ‘That’s a tremendous disconnect. You have two state agencies that really have no connection with each other. How can we really understand what’s going on when nobody’s talking to each other?’ Walsh asks.

Moreover, protecting the coral reefs requires more than a blanket statewide policy. O’ahu and Moloka’i can’t adopt identical policies because the stressors facing each island’s reefs are vastly different. The key, says Sara Peck, a coastal resources extension agent with UH’s Hawai’i Sea Grant College Program Extension service, is to ‘involve people in the actual process of monitoring their marine resources.’

The rationale is that people who spend the time to learn about the reefs and how to measure their relative health are more likely to engage in behaviors that protect the reefs. 

Coral Reef Network


Hawai’i Sea Grant


Wild Hawai’i