Policy News

Hawaii Moves to Fight Coral Bleaching

Hawaiian officials have proposed a series of steps to fight coral bleaching that's threatening the state's reefs, including new marine protected areas, limits on fishing and controlling polluted runoff from land.

Among key steps, officials aim to conduct Land-Based Sources of Pollution (LBSP) appraisals especially where data gaps exist to further identify hot spot for erosion, nutrient, and contaminants. They also intend to support / hire coordinators in the fields of Alien and Invasive Species and Marine Debris. They hope to increase reef health and ecological function by 2020. Also by 2020, they also hope to designate enough marine waters for conservation to ensure sustainable and resilient coral reef systems.

Hawaii's ocean temperatures have risen as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have increased, forcing corals to expel algae they rely on for food. Vast stretches of reef have turned white over the past two summers, increasing the risk that the coral will get sick and die. Some already have died.

It's a serious concern for the health of the ocean because coral reefs provide habitat for fish and other marine life, scientists say. Severe or concurrent years of bleaching can kill coral reefs, as has been documented over the past two years in oceans around the world. Scientists expect a third year of bleaching to last through the end of 2016. Aside from this designation, they aim to reduce anchor damage and trampling of coral reefs through the implementation of no-anchor zones, utilization of day-use mooring buoys and other methods.

Bruce Anderson, the state Division of Aquatic Resources administrator, said addressing polluted runoff is difficult, noting it would cost millions of dollars to create artificial wetlands that would help control runoff. Fishermen in the past have also resisted moves to limit their catch.

But Anderson said the coral bleaching crisis presents an opportunity. “We are going to have future bleaching events, and the water is going to get warmer. And it's going to happen again and again,” he said. “So our challenge is to prevent the impacts of bleaching as much as we can and also to help the reefs recover.”

Another idea is to ban lay gill nets that fishermen leave in the water. Anderson said these types of nets are harmful because they kill all the fish caught in them, not just the species targeted by the fisherman. The nets work because the mesh is large enough for a fish's head to go through but too small for its body to escape.

The state will hold public meetings on its proposals before any are adopted.

Anderson said the state came up with the proposals after surveying over 80 scientists around the world about what steps are most effective at helping coral reefs.

Warmer ocean temperatures bleached coral in Kaneohe Bay off Oahu in 2014. Last year, they bleached corals off the west coast of the Big Island and off Maui.

The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii's marine science director said he's excited and encouraged the state is taking on the issue and that it recognizes it needs to think strategically about coral bleaching. Eric Conklin called the proposals ambitious and noted the state will need to get feedback and input from the community. He said the proposals face a long road to approval through a public process. “It's really easy to say ‘the science tells us these are the best things to do.' It's really tricky to figure out the best way to be guided by that science but develop up a plan that still meets the needs of the people who rely on the resource,” Conklin said. “That's the real challenge in front of us.”

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