OLOWALU - The Maui Nui Marine Resource Council (MNMRC) hosted a community training in Coral Reef Forensics last month in Olowalu.
"For the first time, it brought together adversarial groups" of all ages, MNMRC Chair Dr. Robin Newbold explained, including developers, scientists, teachers, cultural leaders, students, a representative from the state Department of Aquatic Resources (DAR), ocean activity operators and community stakeholders from Olowalu, Lahaina, Molokai and Kahekili.
Led by Maui Coral Reef Recovery Team Chair Dr. Bob Richmond of the University of Hawaii Kewalo Marine Laboratory, the training was attended by over 30 participants, and observations made were alarming.
Reef Forensics participants snorkel at Olowalu while Dr. Bob Richmond leads the in-water portion of the training. PHOTO BY JOHN PARKS.
Amy Hodges is the MNMRC program and operations coordinator. In an update to the Lahaina News. she wrote, "While snorkeling Olowalu reef to practice techniques taught by Dr. Bob Richmond during the training, participants noticed two bits of disturbing evidence: terrigenous (land-based) sediment is accumulating on the reef - and there are no new coral keiki."
The Lahaina News learned from the MNMRC that the Olowalu reef consists of 1,000 acres of relatively healthy coral.
It is often referred to as the "Mother Reef," as currents carry coral larvae to other West Maui reefs and parts of Lanai and Molokai.
"The demise of Olowalu Reef would thus impact those reefs as well," Hodges advised.
Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, Global Coral Repository, recently substantiated the observations of the community training.
He said, "Olowalu has always been a fantastic site to snorkel, had high coral species, urchin and general biodiversity, as well as really good coral coverage and rugosity."
"On April 30, 2015," Downs continued, "we checked out this site, potentially to collect some Tripneustes, and that was when we discovered the sedimentation impact. The sea floor shoreline and out on the reef, the sediment was thick, greyish-black and highly sulfidic. You could tell that the sediment event was fairly recent, because sediment was on coral tissue/skeleton; and when you waved it off the skeleton, the tissue was black."
The reason for the relatively recent onslaught of land-based sediment, according to Newbold, is questionable and undetermined.
However, she was able to describe the potentially catastrophic incident in laymen's terms: "As the sediment settles, it smothers the coral polyps, preventing them from breathing or feeding. Sediment also prevents coral larvae (keiki) from settling.
"One of many reasons Olowalu reef is so special is the old, large, beautiful coral heads - some thought to be 500 years old. Without new recruits, the reef will eventually die - just as a town with only old people will eventually be a ghost town. The young larvae need a hard surface to settle; when there is only sediment, they can't settle."
Capt. Rich Brunner of Atlantis Submarines, a member of MNMRC, joined the forensics training at Olowalu on May 9.
He commented about the experience: "As a professional mariner and recreational ocean user with a degree in marine science, I found the forensics training as very enlightening... Seeing impacts of sedimentation from land sources and negative impacts it has on the reef; with no reef, there is no habitat fish."
Kelly Montenero, Trilogy Excursions' marine conservation and education director, considered the training illuminating.
She warned, "I especially enjoyed getting to know others in the reef user community and learn about coral health indicators specific to here in Hawaii. However, it was an eye-opener to go out to the reef during our training and find that this area lauded as pristine is not as healthy as we had thought. We found more sediment than is ideal, and fewer keiki corals recruited to the reef. This is a wake-up call to anyone on Maui that benefits from our coral reefs - it's past time to make marine conservation a priority in order to prevent further degradation."
The results of the training, however, weren't all bad.
Francois Seneca, who worked with Dr. Richmond at the training as an assistant, is optimistic.
"Sometimes as scientists we are so deeply involved in our work that we can forget what the big picture is - why we are doing things. Participating in the Coral Reef Forensics Community Training at Olowalu was one of those reminders for me. Being able to guide people to read the signs that tell us the reef is in trouble was incredibly rewarding! Meeting and interacting with the local community was hugely motivating," he said.
"People's enthusiasm reassured me that the reef at Olowalu could be saved," Seneca added. "That it isn't too late! Now more than ever, I want to make sure my research will provide some of the tools needed to tackle the sedimentation issue affecting the corals around Maui."
Dr. Richmond is positive as well: "Addressing local sources of stress to our coral reefs, especially land-based sources of pollution and sedimentation from within our watersheds, is essential if we are to leave a legacy of vital coral reefs for future generations. Having such a diverse group of engaged stakeholders, from fishers to developers, focus together on identifying both problems and solutions gives me hope that we can turn things around. We simply can't afford to fail."
John Parks, owner of Marine Management Solutions, facilitated the Saturday exercise last month.
"This community training is illustrative of a general shift underway now in how natural resources are managed. People are returning to the traditional Hawaiian model of decentralized resource management, where local families and knowledgeable leaders have more involvement and influence over the management and fate of the natural resources found within their own community and ahupua'a," he said.
(Next week, learn about how West Siders are working cooperatively to save our resources through Community Managed Marine Areas.)