“The reef is dying.”
That’s marine biologist Hannah Bernard’s prognosis. She’s the co-founder of the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund and has spent many years studying Honolua Bay. She says we need to look at the health of the bay as being in a state of emergency. “It’s sad that this is a Marine Life Preservation District and we are not doing all that we can to preserve the health of it,” she adds.
The reef is crucial to every creature that calls Honolua Bay home. According to Bernard, the reef is the base, supporting multiple layers of marine life. Without having the reef as shelter and a food source, the reef fishes will die. They’re food to many other marine animals, so their deaths would cause those animals that eat them to die off as well, leading to a general collapse of the entire Honolua Bay ecosystem.
Reefs are formed from the skeletons of coral. Coral are living, fragile animals often mistaken for plants or rocks. According the Hawaiian Nature Conservancy’s web site, “Hawaii’s coral reefs and near-shore waters are home to more than 7,000 forms of marine life—a quarter of them found nowhere else on earth.”
Coral reefs support more than 25 percent of all known marine species and are one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, often referred to as the “rainforest” of the sea. And there are more than 1,250 unique species of marine life that can only be found on Hawai‘i’s reefs, according to the Coral Reef Outreach Network.
What exactly is killing the reef is hard to say. There haven’t been many tests conducted in the bay. Most of the information comes from studies done over the past 20 years (the last conducted in 2002) by Steve Dollar, the Principal Investigator from the Hawai‘i Coral Reef Initiative. That research was sponsored by the Maui Land & Pineapple Company and Dr. Eric Brown of Kalaupapa National Historical Park, who tracked the shallow waters of the bay from 1998 to 2003.
In 2006 the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) put out a report on Maui County reefs that included research conducted by Hau and Russell Sparks, a Department of Land and Natural Rresources (DLNR) Education Specialist. The DAR and the Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program began annual surveys of coral condition in 1999. The Pacific Whale Foundation has been monitoring the bay since 1994, so they were able to assess trends over the last 13 years. That report shows that coral cover declined most dramatically at Honolua (from 42 to nine percent).
“The causes of coral reef decline around Maui are complex and vary among locations, but there are strong indications that human impacts have been very important,” stated the report. “Notably, cover has declined at several West Maui sites: Honolua Bay… where anthropogenic impacts from shoreline development and human use are likely greatest.”
But according to Bernard—and other biologists like Skippy Hau of the DAR—none of the previous studies were comprehensive enough to determine what’s depleting the reef. “They were not done often enough to get any real data and there weren’t any done after a big rainfall,” Bernard said.
This is key, especially if run-off is a big cause of the reef’s troubles. Samples from the land and the water after rainfall would help determine the chemical composition of run-off. But tests made during dry conditions may not show those chemicals at all.
Wayno Cochran, Vice-President of the Lahaina-based Save Honolua Coalition—a grass-roots organization that meets regularly to discuss preservation efforts—thinks a major contributing factor to the degradation of the reef is the effects of Honolua Stream diversion. This itself is controversial—in fact, there’s a debate as to whether the stream is being diverted.
According to Teri Freitas Gorman, Maui Land & Pineapple’s Director of Corporate Communications, the company began diverting the stream in 1903 to irrigate sugar cane and pineapple fields. More recently, the water went to irrigate resort grounds and golf courses. The County of Maui and other entities divided the rest, according to a July 23, 2003 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article.
According to Gorman, ML&P President David Cole ordered the end of stream diversion in 2004. But even taking the company at its word, during the 101 years that the stream was being diverted, hazardous conditions may have occurred.
“It’s like coming to a crime scene 10 years later,” Bernard said. According to her, the stream could have been acting as a flushing system in the ocean, clearing out harmful pesticides and sediments that were running off.
Sediments alone will not kill the reef. But they could prevent the larvae from attaching to the bottom and successfully reproducing, according to Bernard. As it is, the reef is only reproducing asexually. But in order for it to thrive, the reef must reproduce both sexually and asexually.
Again, more research is needed to assess the effects of the stream diversion, as well as how other practices that took place on the land while the stream was diverted may be affecting the reef. Then there’s the issue of what hazards may take place if ML&P eventually decides to develop some or all of the nearby land.
“The devil is in the details,” Jo Anne Johnson, the Maui County Council member who earmarked $1 million in park assessment funds for a possible deal to acquire the land, said. “It’s like chemical soup. For years the county was allowing chemicals to be used in agriculture that were banned on the mainland. Often times when they are deemed toxic and illegal, the corporations have switched to different chemicals which there aren’t enough data on to determine the toxicity.”
According to Gorman, ML&P has spoken with government officials in the past, asking for assistance in cleaning up the bay, but they were non-responsive, claiming that the area was too big to care for and that they did not have the resources. All ML&P’s Lipoa Point development plans are apparently off the table, but one option ML&P will not consider is leaving the bay as it is. According to Gorman, the bay is being “loved to death” and the company will have to take some kind of action.
For the Save Honolua Coalition, that action could include installing restrooms and trashcans at the bay and maintaining the nearby trail to prevent erosion and alleviate the pollution caused by human waste. “You would think they could at least afford to do that,” Elle Cochran, Wayno’s wife and president of the coalition, said. But according to Gorman, the company did install dumpsters and portable restrooms, only to see them vandalized.
Originally, as Maui Land was devising its Honolua Bay development plans, company officials reasoned that putting in a golf course was a good way to keep an open, green space in the area. In addition, revenue from the 40 luxury homes proposed would assist in funding the rest of the proposed development. According to Gorman, because the homes would have been mauka of the highway, there would have been less run-off flowing into the bay.
This isn’t quite a moot issue, since some sort of development may someday take place at Lipoa Point. In fact, Representative Angus McKelvey (D, 10th District) believes run-off will occur no matter where construction takes place with respect to the highway. “From my understanding in speaking with [DLNR Education Specialist] Russell Sparks, the rain going over loose ground cover and being carried over the cement, once past the cliff and highway, even if it’s on the valley wall [the bay] will catch some pollution,” McKelvey said at a July 17 Save Honolua Coalition meeting at Kamehameha III Elementary School in Lahaina.
Both Johnson and McKelvey agree that more support is needed by the state and federal government to reach an agreement on both the political funding of research and the possible acquisition of the land around the bay.
“It depends on the county who controls permits,” McKelvey said. “Decisions made by the state will have no weight if the county cracks under pressure by MLP.” He added that he supports more research and the conservation of the bay and will do his part on the state level to see that it is a priority.
“I will request funds from the DOH [state Department of Health] in order for a study to be done by the state,” he said. “If the study is quoted as costing somewhere between $40,000 and $100,000, it’s doable, but if the DAR says it will cost something like $400,000, it’s pretty impossible for the state to handle alone… If the DAR is going to put the study on the back burner, though, it is less likely to get the funding. We need support from them as well.”
One idea McKelvey has is to incorporate assistance from private environmental groups such as the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund—if they’re willing to conduct joint research. “I would be happy to help in any way,” Bernard said.
As it is, a comprehensive report including all research done on Honolua Bay is in the finalization stages and is due out soon, according to Kathy Chaston of Hawai‘i’s Local Action Strategy.
“Well, that’s nice, Bernard said. “But what we really need is further research and an agreement to stop all forms of action on the bay.” MTW