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Saving Maui’s coral reefs — one watershed at a time

By Staff | Mar 12, 2015

Wes Crile, CORAL Hawaii field manager, attended the 20th Anniversary Coral Reef Alliance Gala on Sept. 20, 2014. 

WEST MAUI – Wes Crile thinks it takes a watershed to save a reef. A certified dive master and licensed Coast Guard captain, Crile is currently the Hawaii field manager for the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL).

Based on Maui, he’s getting his feet (and body) wet trying to answer one vital question: what do we need to do to save Hawaii’s coral reefs?

On the surface, it sounds easy enough. We know that one of the biggest threats to reefs in Hawaii is coastal pollution. So as long as Maui can reduce the amount of storm water runoff entering the marine environment, we should be good… right?

Turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For starters, the pollution that’s entering the marine environment in Maui is coming in different forms, from different sources. It’s wastewater coming from injection wells and cesspools, stormwater runoff coming from landscapes, and sediment runoff coming from fallow agriculture land and construction sites.

This means there are multiple groups with a variety of interests, complex social structures, and embedded organizational and political systems that all need to be involved in protecting coral reefs.

Wes Crile demonstrates LID (Low Impact Design) landscaping at The Westin Maui Resort & Spa.

In his work, the word “ahupua’a” comes up frequently. Traditionally, the Hawaiian word refers to a slice of land, a watershed, ranging from the tops of the mountains down to the shorelines. But in reality, it’s not just about the land – it’s also about the communities, the businesses, the politics, and the social networks included in that slice of land.

For Crile, truly saving coral reefs is about restoring entire ahupua’a to their healthy and functioning natural states – not just from the environmental side, but also from the social side.

His favorite part of the job is collaborating with those communities, businesses and political leaders to find solutions to problems.

“I love finding creative solutions to issues and working with business owners, community members and others to find solutions that make sense for both the environment and the needs of people,” he said. “I like explaining sustainability to a general manager at a hotel or resort and really seeing them get it.”

Crile spends his days working with hotels along the Kaanapali coastline, helping them implement LID (Low Impact Design & Development) features on their properties and prepare their facilities to use recycled water in their landscaping irrigation.

He works with the managers of the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area (KHFMA) to protect herbivore populations from overfishing along the Kaanapali coastline. And he’s building partnerships with other organizations, businesses and individuals who are also working to protect Hawaii’s coral reefs.

“If we can do all of this and demonstrate that these projects have real life impacts, we have a better chance of motivating others to adopt practices that will help protect coral reefs,” Crile said.

“Our reefs are one of the unique natural wonders that make Hawaii special, and it would be a shame not to do what we can to keep them healthy and thriving.”

He said some solutions to addressing polluted runoff and poor water quality downstream are very simple.

“Solutions don’t have to be complicated and expensive or high-tech. They can be implemented on a small scale but make a big difference. The LID options we are working to educate people about are one example,” Crile added.

Simple actions like reducing the amount of pesticides or herbicides used in landscapes, or planting native plants that don’t require as much irrigation, can have a big impact on near-shore reefs, he said.

While Crile is an avid diver and loves coral reefs, he said he’s more motivated by water – where it goes and how clean it is.

“It’s what ties the whole community together. It falls on a mountain, flows through different land uses, like agriculture, forests, people’s backyards, and it exits into the ocean. So many coral reef issues start further upstream,” he concluded.

Headquartered in Oakland, California, and with field offices all over the world, CORAL unites communities to save coral reefs. Working with local people – from fishermen to government leaders, divers to scientists, Californians to Fijians – CORAL protects one of our most valuable and threatened ecosystems.

CORAL’s international team designs long-term and lasting conservation programs that reduce the threats to coral reefs and are replicated across the globe. For more information about CORAL, or to make a donation to protect coral reefs, visit www.coral.org.