Maui Biologist Pauline Fiene Says The Proposed Olowalu Town Project Endangers Some Of The Most Unique Coral Reefs In Hawaii

Pauline Fiene calls them micro-atolls. They’re tiny rings of coral just a couple feet in diameter that grow right up to the shore. During low tide, they pierce the surface like their giant cousins in the western Pacific. She’s found them just a few yards offshore at Olowalu, and nowhere else in Hawaii.

“People probably think there’s coral all around Maui, but really, there are just slivers of coral around the island,” said Fiene, a biologist who’s spent the last 25 years on Maui. “The most unique is at Olowalu. The coastline from Camp Olowalu going north used to be solid kiawe. Having that kiawe cooled the water and protected the coastline. Now it’s gone.”

There’s a lot more than just ripped out kiawe that worries Fiene about the Olowalu reef. On April 23, the public comment period officially closed for the 1,000-plus page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Olowalu Town, which is currently under consideration by the state Land Use Commission (LUC). In development by Olowalu Town LLC (a hui consisting of David Ward, Peter Martin, Glenn Tremble, Alice Tremble, William Frampton and another hui called Plantation Village LLC, which is headed by James Riley), Olowalu Town is set to include an astonishing 1,500 new homes.

The owner and operator of Mike Severns Diving, Fiene has spent the last few years thinking about how that much construction will affect the Olowalu reef. Her fear is that runoff, especially during storms, will significantly damage the reef.

“Fertilizer can get washed down,” she told me. “Silt is an issue. When that silt gets suspended, it reduces the amount of sunlight the coral receives. Over and over, that reduces the ability of the coral to grow and be healthy.”

On April 21, Fiene sent a three-page comment on the Olowalu DEIS to the LUC staff. Based in great part on conversations and research she’s shared with fellow biologist Cory Pittman, Fiene’s comment letter succinctly and eloquently describes the dangers Olowalu Town poses to the coral reef. It’s a part of the public record, but we’re reprinting here (with some minor changes in formatting and grammar) because potential damage to Olowalu coral hasn’t received much publicity (to download a PDF of the Olowalu DEIS, visit

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Aloha Land Use Commission Members and Staff:

I am writing to provide comments on the DEIS for the Olowalu Town Project.

I am a diver and biologist with over 8,000 dives in Maui waters since 1987. I mainly study a group of shell-less mollusks called Opisthobranchs, but I also have broad interests in coral reef ecology.
My comments are in regard to Appendix D–The Assessment of Marine Water Chemistry and Biotic Community Structure in the Vicinity of the Olowalu Town Master Plan.

The study surveyors spent just four days surveying an area of over 450 acres. The study correctly characterizes the sediment problem on the Olowalu reefs, but fails to correctly assess the species composition, caliber and uniqueness of the reef itself. This is understandable given the extreme minimum of time spent there surveying. As a result, this study downplays this reef’s diversity and one-of-kind status, its value and importance to Maui, and its place in the entire state.

1. The study notes that the offshore reef at Olowalu is unusual in that it is an actively accreting aggregate reef. This is true, but it fails to say just how unusual. I’ve attached a map made by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science in 2007.

The dark red areas with purple lines are living aggregate coral reef structure. This is not coral colonies growing on lava; this is high structure, coral skeleton that has been growing for hundreds of years, five to 40 feet thick. Coral reef provides many more places for reef fish and other animals to live than do isolated colonies of coral growing on rock. It is a complicated network of channels that is home to millions of other animals.

The first thing that jumps out from this map is just how little living aggregate coral reef we have on Maui, compared to how much coastline there is. I don’t think most people realize what a precious and limited natural feature this is. The second striking thing is just how close the Olowalu reef is to shore and to human impacts.

As you can see on this map, extensive areas containing living aggregate coral reef are limited to only THREE areas on the whole island. There are some narrow bands along the west side but they are not extensive. Of these three, only TWO. Kihei and Olowalu, have over 50-90 percent live coral coverage and only ONE of those grows very close to the shoreline. Kihei’s reef is offshore in 50-80 feet of water, a relatively safe distance from land pollutants, but also inaccessible to anyone without a boat/kayak. The single extensive aggregate coral reef on the whole island with over 50-90 percent live coral coverage that grows in accessible water is the Olowalu reef. That makes it unique, not unusual.

2. The study found a total of 12 species of corals, but there are actually twice that many. Expert marine invertebrate biologist, Cory Pittman, who has studied the Olowalu reef for the past 34 years, has recorded 24 species of corals (personal communication). This area is home to several species of rare corals and it also has the highest diversity of Porites species and growth forms in the entire island chain, with three particularly rare species (P. duerdeni, P. solida, P. cf. annae). Dr. Zac Forsman of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology told me that “one of the most amazing things about the site is that Cory was able to find nearly every species of rare coral in Hawaii at this one site!”

3. The study noted the coral micro-atolls on the inner reef flat, but it failed to correctly identify the three species (not one) of corals growing as micro-atolls, and there is no mention of this area’s unique status in the state of Hawaii. There are a few individual micro-atolls in Kaneohe Bay, some in NWHI lagoons, and some off Lahaina, but Olowalu has by far the best-developed, most extensive micro-atoll area in all the islands. To me, this area is literally an outdoor museum of rare coral species and growth forms.

4. The study notes some large (“up to several meters”) Porites lobata colonies offshore but it didn’t note that one colony is over 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter and is estimated by Cory Pittman to be around 500 years old. There are numerous other century colonies here as well. Dr. Zac Forsman of HIMB said to me “I’ve seen large Porites colonies, but there are some ancient giants there.”

5. The study makes mention of “numerous small black-tip reef sharks” but doesn’t say that this area has been a nursery area for them for decades and that it is one of the few in the entire state. Pregnant females know to come specifically to this area generation after generation to give birth due to its calm, shallow, protected water.

6. Although the surveyors spent only four days on site it was obvious enough to them to note several times throughout their report that sediment was the major factor affecting this reef.

“In the case of Olowalu, the predominant controlling factor appears to be effects from sediment, originating both from terrestrial runoff and resuspension of naturally occurring marine sediment (note that the lack of wave energy may also result in less removal of sediment from coral surfaces than in areas of higher water velocity). Sediment is the main stressor in this area due to limited water circulation.”

If this area were designated urban and if construction were allowed to occur upslope, does anyone believe the proposed project “will not have any significant negative effects” on this reef as claimed? Especially with the “limited water circulation” referenced in the study.

It is stated that grading and drainage improvements will meet or exceed County standards, but County standards haven’t proven effective at preventing degradation of reefs in the past. We all know from the many developments built in our lifetime that major deposits of soil have occurred no matter what “mitigations” the developers plan. Chocolate brown water has poured into the ocean during construction of the Grand Wailea, Four Seasons, Makena Landing properties, the Maui Ocean Center, North Kihei, the new Kapalua Hotel, etc. And these developments were on relatively level ground! Once in the ocean this dirt doesn’t just go away. It gets resuspended every time there is even small surf in the area, blocking sunlight critical to coral growth. There is no doubt in my mind that the same would occur with a project the size of Olowalu, especially considering the much greater slope of the land here.

In addition, the small amount of low-lying, relatively level land at Olowalu, which in the past has functioned as a partial run-off filtration area during storm events, is, in the proposed master plan, covered with residences and impervious surfaces–as well as a wastewater treatment facility?

Why would we take this chance? There is simply no compelling reason for a major development here. It doesn’t even fit most of the criteria for urban designation, being that it is so isolated from services and other developments. I am baffled why urbanization is even being considered.

We don’t get to decide where our special natural places are on Maui. Nature decides that. All we can decide is where our development is going to be. And if there were a reef on the whole island that cries out for respite and exemption from urban development above it, it would be Olowalu. It has developed over centuries and there is literally nothing to replace it.

Mahalo for this opportunity to comment.

Pauline Fiene