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Researchers: Steps can be taken locally to protect Maui reefs

By Staff | Dec 3, 2015

The protection of our natural resources is an everyone – no one is excluded – responsibility. From the top of the mountains to the reefs surrounding our islands, there is no exception.

The question is, what is the starting point? Is it on a grassroots level or is the answer global?

West Side County Councilwoman Elle Cochran invited experts to address this challenge at a meeting last month of the council’s Infrastructure and Environmental Management Committee.

The council committee meeting focused on the threats to our delicate coral reef ecosystem.

“It is important to do what we can as citizens and leaders to be good stewards of the ocean and our environment. Our natural resources are so very precious, and it’s up to us to protect them for the future generations,” the local legislator said.

Mike Field is the senior scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey. He recommended awareness as an important first step to preservation.

“Our biggest challenge is helping the governments and the people of Hawaii understand that action is required, and it is required NOW,” he commented.

“Coral reefs are being decimated worldwide,” Field continued, “and that is starting to hit home here in Hawaii, where the reefs have immense importance for culture, food resources, recreation and more. And yet Hawaii trails the world, including poor, developing nations, in protecting its coral reefs. Estimates range from less than two percent to less than one percent are protected in the main Hawaiian Islands. Other nations have set aside thousands of acres for protection, and many have set goals of 20 percent by 2020.”

Russell Sparks, State of Hawaii, Maui Division of Aquatic Resources, was one of the panelists. He pinpointed the three major “stressors” impacting the well being of the vital bio-structure surrounding our islands.

“Worldwide (and Hawaii is no exception), there are three major stressors to coral reefs: overfishing, land-based sources of pollution and global climate change (which for coral reefs means ocean warming, ocean acidification and rising sea levels),” he noted.

All is not lost, however; there is hope. According to a network of determined and dedicated marine eco-caretakers, actions can be taken individually and collectively to help reverse the trends.

“We may not be able to do very much on a local level to reverse rising global CO2 levels and the resulting warming and other climate changes, but we can certainly address overfishing and land-based sources of pollution locally,” Sparks said.

Mark Deakos is the director of the Hawaii Association of Marine Education and Research. He said, “I believe the single greatest threat to our reefs, for which we have the power to control, is land-based sources of pollution, primarily sediment.”

He wants to make landowners accountable for damages from the discharge of pollution into nearshore waters.

“I think it’s the lack of understanding of the incredible services that a reef ecosystem provides, such as food, shoreline protection and commercial and recreational activities,” he said.

“Some researchers,” the West Side marine biologist explained, “are trying to put a monetary value on those services. These values are ranging from several hundred million dollars in annual revenue for some reefs and as much as 10 billion dollars in total value for the main Hawaiian Island reefs. This value needs to be taken into consideration when putting together a mitigation plan for any project that may impact a reef.”

Scientific proof is abundant.

“Evidence from all around the world, as well as on Maui, suggests that if we reduce these other stressors, we can increase the natural resilience of the coral reef and help them better recover from major events like this year’s bleaching event. Over time, if our reefs are allowed to recover and adapt, it will be much more likely that they can continue to exist at some level despite the major global changes that will likely continue to occur,” Sparks observed.

Field was precise in his advice for action: “Without a doubt, the state needs to set aside 20 percent – that’s all, just 20 percent – of the reefs for complete protection. No fishing or disturbances of any kind. The reefs need a stress-free existence to try to fight the already-here impacts of a warming and more acidic ocean.

“There are over 15,000 acres of coral reefs around Maui Nui having greater than 50 percent live coral coverage. A network of protected areas needs to include a variety of reef habitats, depths, wave exposure, resilience factors and other important characteristics.”

The highly recognized scientist continued, “I would start with protecting areas of the Olowalu reef tract. Olowalu is a large, rich, pristine reef that seeds other Maui Nui reefs with coral larvae; without Olowalu, other reefs might die as well,” Field warned.

Robin Newbold, marine biologist, is a key player in the Maui marine preservation scene.

She is the chair of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council (MNMRC), but she spoke on her own behalf in this interview with Lahaina News.

“We must set aside ‘rest’ areas where coral and fish are given a chance to recover. Even 20 percent might help, but more would be better.

“We need to support and encourage community efforts to manage resources in their ‘backyard’ – as in the old days. I’m referring to co-management with the state, as each has a role to play. The top-down approach clearly hasn’t worked; if it had, coral and fish populations wouldn’t have declined so drastically. So let’s try something different – something that has worked well in many Pacific Island nations. Communities are able to provide more ‘enforcement,’ both because community members are onsite and because they can build consensus.”

Native son and community leader Ekolu Lindsey has plenty of local experience and knowledge. He’s the co-founder of the Polanui Hiu Community Managed Makai Area (CMMA) situated in his own backyard along the shoreline in south Lahaina, where the Lindsey family has lived for generations.

He has common sense, every day, everybody solutions.

“We need to stop using storm drains and gulches as our private dumping areas. Use trashcans and take your opala to the refuse collection sites,” he said.

Further, he said, developers, contractors and anyone involved in the construction trades must minimize and eliminate sediment from running into storm drains, gulches and streams.

Lindsey continued with the specifics.

“Utilizing silt fences, bio socks, and checking them to ensure proper implementation will go a long way to keeping out sediment from the ocean. Painters can help by disposing of paint products and cleaning properly – not letting it run down the street. Restaurants can help by not washing their kitchen mats in the streets and allowing all the cleaning agents to discharge down storm drains. Homeowners and businesses that have swimming pools/jacuzzis can help by discharging their pool water properly and not letting it run down streets and into storm drains.”

Lindsey’s message was practical as well as heartfelt.

“Given the unprecedented bleaching events of the past two years and the potential for more in the near future, we need to reduce any further stressors to corals and marine ecosystems. Doing this will help the coral to heal itself,” he said.

In an unprecedented action at press time, Field forwarded an e-mail to the Lahaina News: a “Call to Action – Preserving the Magnificent Coral Reefs of Maui Nui.”

“This Call to Action was created by a concerned group of community leaders, resource managers, and scientists from Maui Nui and the wider main Hawaiian Islands, including government and non-government agencies,” the announcement read.

The list of persons endorsing the call is impressive – and, according to Field, snow-balling.

“We’ve focused on Maui-knowledgeable folks first, but coral reef experts worldwide will be invited this week,” he explained.

For more information about this Call to Action or add your support, visit www.facebook.com/MauiNuiCoralReefs.