Lately, there’s been a great deal of buzz about the health of Maui’s coral reefs. While not a new topic–the reefs have been threatened for many years–there are nonprofits, watersheds, scientists and marine biologists, Maui County officials and state departments like the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources working to sustain the reefs.
The trouble is that they can only do so much. The only way that we’ll really reverse reef damage and ensure that our reef systems remain healthy for future generations is by enlisting the assistance of a lot more people. Basically, everyone in our community: private and public landowners, developers, resorts and elected officials.
“It is both environmentally and economically imperative that we put more resources and effort in restoring the health and beauty of our reefs and coastal waters,” said County Councilmember Kelly King. “I believe this, along with Maui’s invasive species issues, will adversely impact tourism in the near future and we need the Maui Visitor industry to start collaborating on solutions.”
Reef decline is a result of many different factors: global climate change (rising temperatures and rising sea levels), land-based pollution, sediment, overfishing and human impact. It means that our fish and marine life decline in health and in population numbers, our reef ecosystems are frail and unbalanced, the water clarity is poor and that nasty bacteria resides in our waters. An unhealthy reef system directly reflects on the quality of life for humans, marine species and animals. In fact, Hawaii’s coral reef systems represent more than 85 percent of all the coral reefs in the United States.
Russell Sparks, an Aquatic Biologist for the Division of Aquatic Resources on Maui, says the island is experiencing some downward trends in terms of the quantity of our living coral, but that we also have the most extensive system of aggregate coral reefs compared to any other island in our state. Aggregate coral reefs are large reef tracks built upon the skeleton of old corals.
“Because of the shallow shelf habitat, and the protection from wave energy provided by the islands within Maui County, there is a much more developed system of reefs around the leeward sides of the Maui County islands,” Sparks said. “With more reef, we can more easily document decline in those reefs, than on other islands. However, because of the extensive aggregate reef tracks within Maui County, we should also be extremely concerned about the overall resiliency of these reefs and pay close attention to any signs of declining reef health in Maui County.”
In addition, the DLNR website states that there are many threats to Hawaii’s coral reefs; global and local. It also states that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of research, quantitative and qualitative measures.
“Critical information is still lacking about the causes of coral decline but evidence suggests a variety of human forces, including population increases, shoreline development, land-based sources of pollution, increased sediments in the water, damage by tourists and divers, groundings, poor water quality from runoff and sewage treatment and over-fishing,” states the website.
The usual reason for a lack of research is not from a lack of effort, but more from a lack of funding. Another reason why we all need to come together and proactively be socially responsible; do our parts as individuals and support our local nonprofits and organizations that are so dedicated to working towards reef recovery.
As individual community members, you can be a steward for our oceans and coral reefs. Purchase products that do not harm our marine ecosystems, and support the businesses that are in fact making a positive impact in improving Maui’s land and ocean environments. A giant change can be made just based on how we choose to spend our money, and by the businesses we support in our daily lives.
There are four main contributing factors in the decline of Maui’s coral reefs. All are serious, and all require our attention if we’re to slow or even reverse the harm we’re doing every day.
Throughout all organizations and individuals that I spoke to during my research, every single one agreed that sediment is the preeminent cause to the decline of Maui’s reefs. It’s the main threat for many reasons and from many separate causes. It also seems to be the most challenging for people to understand: the community, private and public landowners and the County.
“Land-based sediment is the greatest threat to Maui’s reefs but the least talked about,” said Dr. Mark Deakos of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research (HAMER). “But if we don’t put a stop to this threat, our reefs don’t stand a chance. Maui County needs to better understand the value of our marine resources (economy, recreation, food, shoreline protection) and how poor land management practices are destroying that golden goose and create policies that support restorative land use practices that sustain our ecosystem services for future generations to enjoy.”
Have you ever been to the beach or just drive by the coast and see brown water near the shoreline? That is officially called a “brown water event.” Brown water happens all too often on Maui, and happens when sediment travels from land to the oceans by flooding, storm runoffs or freshwater streams.
“When we remove native forests, stormwater is no longer retained where it falls and begins to flow downhill until it reaches the ocean, collecting sediment and pollutants on its way down,” said Deakos. “Sediment suffocates coral reefs by blocking sunlight needed for photosynthesis and when it settles on the bottom, prevents new coral larvae from settling since they require a solid bottom substrate. With each new wave event, sediment is resuspended and the threat continues. The water quality is impaired from all the sediment laced with pollutants, which interfere with coral reproduction.”
Agriculture, coastal development and waste management (sewage and septic) issues have a huge effect on Maui’s water quality. Forest fires are also a huge contributor to sediment. Soil and silt runoff poses a huge threat, and nutrients and chemicals from farming, fertilizers, construction sites, septic tanks, storm drains, golf courses, resorts and ocean tour companies run directly into our oceans. It’s very important that agriculture, development and tourism related businesses follow strict measures to either eliminate their water quality footprint, or take drastic measures to decrease their negative contributions to our land and oceans.
“Our natural resources are the bread and butter of our economy here on Maui,” said Deakos. “That means we need to inventory what is needed to maintain these ecosystems in healthy and sustainable condition (improve water quality, stabilize erosion areas, maintain minimum stream flow standards, etc.) first. Once we know what we need to do to maintain those resources, we can establish a carrying capacity (how many people, cars, buildings) to budget how Maui grows and how we build with nature in mind.”
If you ever see a Brown Water Event on Maui, you can report it on the Maui Brown Water Alert Facebook Page (Facebook.com/mauibrownwater).
Fishing is a way of life in Maui. It’s cultural and life-sustaining, but many fishing practices need to be adjusted to help our reefs recover. In fact, Maui County is considered the most overfished island in the Hawaiian Island chain. “We found that food fish biomass was nearly three times higher in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands compared to the Main Hawaiian Islands, and nearly 10 times higher than off Oahu and parts of Maui,” said Dr. Kuulei Rodgers of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, co-author of a recent study on the effects of overfishing in Hawaii.
More pono fishing practices, like those of the Lawai‘a, would help.
Lawai‘a were Hawaiian fishermen. They created a very detailed and intricate system for managing and harvesting I‘a (seafood). They did so in a way that helped to protect their marine fishery systems with traditional knowledge. In order to ensure that fish populations would sustain for generations to come, the ancient Hawaiians knew that there were certain management practices that had to be put in place. For example, it was kapu to harvest certain fish species during their spawning seasons. A “spawning season” is the season where a fish species reproduces. In addition, they always considered the tides, seasons and moon phases.
The phrase “Lawai‘a Pono” means to “fish righteously.” In order for us to restore the balance of our coral reef systems, a huge part of it is maintaining and helping to foster our local fish populations. If we don’t want to deplete our resources, we must learn to only take what we need. Although the common fisherman and his family are not the huge threat here, all fishermen and fisheries should keep the following in mind:
- Catch and release: Take only what you need from the ocean. Quickly release the fish, keep the fish in the water as much as possible, utilize gentle handling, remove hook and cut lines quickly, revive unconscious fish by holding them upright in the water and moving water back and forth over their gills, and do not hold fish by their eye sockets (results are blindness and death).
- Spawning seasons: Avoid fishing for certain types of fish during their spawning seasons. While a fish species is in their reproductive season, we must let them rest and restore their stock. For example, fishing season is closed for ‘Ama‘ama (striped mullet) from December-March, and fishing for Moi is closed from June-August.
- Observe resting periods: Resting periods are put into place to allow time for a species to recover from overfishing. It’s quite common to see signage placed at popular fishing sites- please adhere to resting periods.
- Spread the knowledge: Share your learned knowledge with those around you; whether they are adults or youth. Only from education can we increase awareness about pono fishing practices.
- Use proper and legal gear: When fishing and spending time in our oceans, make sure to use proper, appropriate and legal gear. There are many factors that contribute to the damage of our coral reefs and the decline of our marine resources.
- Recycle your fishing lines: Please do not leave your plastic fishing lines in the water or on the beach! Lone plastic fishing lines are dangerous to our coral reef and to our marine species.
For more information about fishing regulations on Maui, visit the DLNR website at Dlnr.hawaii.gov.
PLASTICS, POLYSTYRENE AND SUNSCREEN
Plastics, polystyrene (Styrofoams) and sunscreens with UV filters like oxybenzone and octinoxate all negatively contribute to the health of our coral reef. Plastic and polystyrene is dangerous to marine life and litters our beaches. Sunscreens with UV filters are blocking sunlight to living reef systems. Sure, we can choose to not purchase these items and dispose of plastics correctly whether it be in trash cans or by recycling, but Maui’s residents are not the only ones that need to adhere to these practices.
On average, more than 8.5 million people visit Hawaii every year, and that number is consistently growing. Without a doubt, the visitor industry is huge, and with that comes a lot of waste and destruction to our natural resources. From plastic straws at resort-side bars, to Styrofoam plate lunch boxes, and plastic shave ice cups littering our roads and highways, business practices need to change.
This past May, the Maui Polystyrene Ban was unanimously approved by the Maui County Council. That’s a big win, but it’s not planned to take effect until Dec. 31, 2018.
If you want to decrease the amount of toxic damage that enters our reef systems from plastics, polystyrene (Styrofoams) and sunscreens, first choose to support conscious brands, products and businesses. If you’re favorite restaurant or food truck uses Styrofoam to-go containers, tell them it’s wrong! Take a step further and communicate your beliefs to elected officials, make your voice heard at county/state meetings and volunteer with the organizations that are making strides for change.
People acting out of sheer ignorance poses a huge threat to coral reef health. Here are ways you can be a more conscious and socially responsible person:
- Don’t step on the reef! Whether you’re swimming, snorkeling, surfing or fishing, make a conscious choice in navigation and do not step on our coral reef. The damage is irreversible, and you are actually killing a living organism that is home to many marine species.
- Adhere to regulations that are in place from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in accordance to fishing practices and marine life protection laws. These rules are in place for a reason.
- Use household products that are bio-degradable. Since we live on an island, anything that goes down a drain, or is flushed down the toilet will eventually reach Maui’s oceans. If you’re someone that still flushes old pharmaceutical pills down the toilet, stop now! Support brands that are eco-conscious and that do as little damage to our environment as possible.
- Recycle! By recycling paper, plastics, glass and cardboard, you’re only doing the least that you can do to help Maui’s natural environment and coral reefs. This should be something that’s an automatic process in your day-to-day life. In addition, do not dump garbage on the side of the road. Go to one of Maui’s many Redemption Center’s or go to the dump.
- Don’t throw cigarettes out of your car window, and do not leave cigarette butts on the beach. Not only are cigarettes butts littering our beaches and roads, but they also pose a major threat to forest fires. Considering the amount of past agriculture land that we have in Maui that’s not irrigated anymore, the threat of forest and roadside fires is even larger now.
While all this is very serious, there is hope. In fact, there are ways you can help Maui’s coral reefs right now.
Volunteering with Maui nonprofits is a great way to make a positive impact in improving the conditions of Maui’s coral reefs. Participating in beach cleanups is a great place to start, but there are many additional ways to volunteer your time. Volunteering at nonprofit events are not only fun, but a very thankful job. If you do not have time to volunteer, consider making donations.
“There is no silver bullet that will heal our reefs,” said Eden Zang of the Oceanwide Science Institute. “It’s going to take all of us working together to ensure our reefs our resilient enough to withstand the inevitable elevated stressors that will come with climate change. The good news is that when we reduce local activities that affect coral health (ex. coastal development, physical disturbance, agricultural waste, etc.) we give coral communities a better chance to survive changes in their environment.”
Here are a variety of Maui organizations working to halt reef decline that really need volunteers:
Reef Restoration & Water Quality Projects
- Polanui Hiu Community Managed Makai Area (CMMA): Polanuihiu.com
- Maui Nui Marine Resource Council: Mauireefs.org/get-involved
Education, Outreach & Field Surveys
- Hawaii Ecosystems at Risk: Hear.org
Maui’s Watersheds: Seed Collection, Planting & Trail Restoration Projects
- East Maui Watershed: Eastmauiwatershed.org
- West Maui Watershed: Westmauiwatershed.org
- Pu‘u Kukui Watershed: Puukukui.org
- Leeward Haleakala Watershed: Lhwrp.org
- Southwest Maui Watershed: Mauiwatershed.org
- Surfrider Foundation, Maui Chapter: Maui.surfrider.org
- Hawaii Wildlife Foundation: Wildhawaii.org/projects
- Malama Maui Nui: Malamamauinui.org
- Meet Up: Meetup.com/maui-beach-cleanup
- Pacific Whale Foundation Volunteer on Vacation Program: Pacificwhale.org/content/volunteering-vacation-beach-cleanup-project-0
- 808 Cleanups: 808cleanups.org
Cover design: Darris Hurst