Series: Coral Reefs

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Following the three hottest summers for ocean temperatures in known history, I investigated reef health around Kauai and worldwide. The result was an eight-story series printed in The Garden Island Newspaper in March 2017.

Corals: Cornerstone of Culture

This is the first of a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, printed March 19, 2017. Photos by Jessica Else.

KAUAI — A dozen schoolchildren stood at the edge of Moloaa Bay during a recent field trip. Before entering the water to study the coral, they performed an oli, or a traditional Hawaiian chant.

It was the first segment of the Kumulipu, the Hawaiian Hymn of Creation, which tells the story of how life sprang from darkness — and how it all started with a coral polyp.

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Moloa’a Bay, Kauai.

“For us as Hawaiians, the initial connection we have with coral is that it’s the first living thing in terms of our creation chant,” said Lei Wann, a kumu at Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School. “We always start off with that before we enter the ocean and study the different corals and polyps. For us it’s the reason why we’re here.”

After the oli, the third- and fourth-graders broke into two groups. One studied the corals in Moloaa Bay with Katie Nelesere, education and outreach coordinator for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources. The other group searched for different kinds of limu, or seaweed, in the rocks.

“We’ve been out and done this at two other reefs with these kids,” Nelesere said. “We go out and study the coral and then go back to the classroom where they make clay models of what we saw.”

The goal is to teach the keiki about their environment through place-based learning.

“We’re super lucky as a school to still be able to do this,” Wann said. “Other schools can’t access the ocean like these kids can. They still can dive and look and see.”

One of the things that fourth-grader Kahiau Martinez said she’s been seeing a lot of is cauliflower coral.

“The last excursion … we went in the water and saw a cauliflower,” she said. “It was huge and it was green.”

In addition to being a cultural cornerstone, coral reefs are the home of 25 percent of fish in the ocean. They also create drag and surf, and contribute to the economy through tourism and fishing.

And within the last 30 years, roughly half of them worldwide have died, according to experts.

“The Aussies are saying that we’ve killed off the Great Barrier Reef and even if we stopped CO2 production today, it’s too late,” said Carl Berg, marine biologist on Kauai. “We’ve lost control of our acidity and temperature because of global climate change.”

A new report in the publication Nature points to rising sea temperatures as the cause for severe damage of the world’s largest reef.

Scientists have been monitoring bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef since 1998.

In 2016, 1,052 of the 1,156 reefs checked experienced some sort of bleaching.

That’s 9 percent of the reef that wasn’t damaged in 2016. In 1998, 45 percent of the reefs weren’t bleached.

Both 1998 and 2016 were El Nino years, meaning warmer water naturally moves across the ocean, causing a variation in temperatures. But scientists say the events are now happening more frequently.

“Corals are used to natural fluctuation, but when it happens every few years, the reefs can’t recover,” said Curt Storlazzi, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

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A group studies coral in Moloa’a Bay on Kauai.

Kauai experienced severe coral bleaching and mortality in the 2014 and 2015 bleaching events, especially on the North Shore, as well as an epidemic of black band disease around the same time.

Scientists around the world say while it’s important to address the symptoms of the dying reefs, the focus should be on stopping the cause, which they say is CO2 emissions.

Some suggestions are to do things that decrease individual carbon footprings, lke avoiding single-use plastics and to find alternatives to driving.

“Instead of using plastic, use clay, those kinds of things,” said Katherine Muzik, a Kauai marine biologist.

Finding ways to shrink human impacts to the environment is also important, she said.

“There’s this concept called de-growth,” Muzik said. “We need to stop the trajectory of growth.”

Without coral reefs, life on Kauai would be different, said Martinez and her friend Anela Quintero, who is also in the fourth-grade at Kawaikini Charter School.

“We learned that the corals were the first things made and that without them the fish would have nowhere to live,” Quintero said. “And that if there’s no more coral then the waves’ll get bigger because the coral breaks down the wave.”


Connection: watershed and the reefs

Second in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 20, 2017. Photos by Jessica Else.
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All rivers lead to the ocean at some point, and that water can take pollutants to the reef.

KAUAI — Hawaiian custom recognizes a connection between the watershed and the ocean, mauka and makai; and experts are also looking to the mountains to explain the declining health of coral reefs.

“Everybody has known for a long time this ridge to reef paradigm,” said Ku’ulei Rodgers, coral reef biologist at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. “The ahupua’a system, for centuries it’s been the central element in Native Hawaiian land management.”

The ahupua’a system, she said, is a land and reef management system that combines watersheds, streams, coastal regions and even some areas further out to sea as an interacting, connected ecosystem.

“They (ancient Hawaiians) had this holistic view. They believed what they did on land was going to affect their fishing and they were careful,” Rodgers said. “We have that same view today. The sustain abilities of the watershed are linked to the near shore environment.”

Though the concept is commonly accepted, it wasn’t until recently that a project between the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the Hawaii Stream Research Center quantified the connection between the reefs and the watersheds on a large scale.

“Why do we believe this so strongly? It’s because there are links on the small scale that we were seeing,” Rodgers said.

Research with the Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program was showing these small-scale connections. Established in 1998 by coral reef experts in Hawaii, CRAMP was tasked with creating a statewide network of long-term coral reef monitoring sites, along with a database.

Researchers with CRAMP have worked throughout the archipelago, including the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The tour took them to the south shore of the island of Molokai, in connection with the U.S. Geological Survey, and there Rodgers said researchers found a “very clear connection between poor land practices and poor reef condition.”

“So because we’ve see in it in certain areas people take it for granted that this is true on a large scale and we couldn’t determine that unless we had a lot of information about both the reefs and the watershed,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers teamed up with Mike Kido, director of the Hawaii Stream Research Center, who created a health index for the state’s watersheds. And working together, they found an overall positive correlation between the watersheds and the reefs.

“So the healthier the watershed, the healthier the reef on a statewide scale,” Rodgers said. “That’s not any surprise because people believed this anyway.”

The explanation of that connection can be found in the water cycle. Henrietta Dula is a geochemist and associate professor at the University of Hawaii who studies submarine groundwater discharge.

“So I study the water cycle and how water from the land gets to the ocean,” Dulai said. “While the water itself is doing that, it carries dissolved material in it.”

Sediment, excess nutrients, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, and pesticides are on the list of things that streams bring down from the mountains.

All those make up local stressors to corals, and add to the global stressors affecting reefs worldwide, said Curt Storlazzi, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Local stressors, however, only affect specific areas and are a result of pollution from the land connected to the reef, according to experts.

“If you’re going to affect the watershed you’re going to have to think of the reef that’s adjacent to it,” Rodgers said. “And not all watersheds impact adjacent reefs in the same way. Watersheds have a greater impact on reefs on south shores and in shallow waters.”

Increased sediment discharge is one of the things that’s inhibiting photosynthesis and can smother coral.

“Islands erode and corals have evolved in connection with that, but not as high a quantities as we’re seeing now,” Storlazzi said.

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On high rainfall days, the waterwas on Kauai will turn brown with sediment.

Invasive plant species have settled into the watersheds that are more prone to landslides. Invasive animal species like goats that eat vegetation, and pigs that dig up the terrain, make the soil more prone to run off with the rains.

“Some of it is sediment from poor land use practices,” Storlazzi said. “It appears some sediment is from taro patches.”

While sediment is enough to stress reefs, it’s usually not alone when it washes down streams onto the coral.

“A lot of time this sediment is a vector for other things, or has nutrients or pesticides associated with it,” Storlazzi said.

Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous encourage the growth of invasive algae and upsetting the balance of the reef. It also kick-starts a cycle that can lead to a change in the pH of the water, known as ocean acidification.

The declining health of the coral reefs worldwide can’t be attributed to just one thing, experts say. It’s a combination of factors both worldwide and local, but researchers say individuals can play a part in saving the reefs.

In Hawaii, USGS and other entities are doing surveys to inform management agencies that can in turn develop best practices and help curb some of the discharge coming from the streams and going onto reefs statewide.

“People need to start reducing their carbon footprint,” Rodgers said.


Invisible Inputs: reefs and groundwater discharge

Third in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 21, 2017.
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This is blue rice coral, photographed by Terry Lilley on Kauai.

KAUAI — There’s a web of secret passageways used by pollutants to reach the reefs that fringe Kauai’s beaches.

While streams are convenient paths for excess nutrients, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and pesticides, they find their way down the mountain using underground methods as well.

“We are putting these things into the ocean and onto the reef; and while many are focused on the streams because they’re kind of an obvious point source, another pathway is groundwater outflow,” said Henrietta Dulai, a geochemist and associate professor at the University of Hawaii who studies submarine groundwater discharge.

SGD is the secret passageway — that freshwater you feel when you shuffle your feet along the bottom of a warm bay.

It’s fresh water that’s leaking from the aquifers into the ocean. It is a natural part of the water cycle, Dulai said, and the reefs get necessary nutrients from the submarine groundwater discharge.

But, researchers are showing that the concentration of nutrients in SGD around the island has increased, and it’s brought company.

“Let’s use the very simple example of nitrogen,” Dulai said. “It’s a nutrient, meaning it’s a food in for the reef.”

Nitrogen seeps naturally into the groundwater from organic matter and directly from the soil, but when groundwater flows below urban areas on its way to the ocean, it passes by cesspools and septic systems.

“Suddenly you see a huge increase in nitrogen concentration in the groundwater and then the water that discharges into the ocean carries this signature with it,” Dulai said.

Scientists have identified the isotopic signature of the nitrates that come from cesspools, and can separate them from the nitrogen from other sources.

When all that nitrogen seeps onto the reef, it feeds invasive algae, which throws off the balance of the reef, but it also increases overall photosynthesis, or the process the algae in the reefs use to eat.

This is where ocean acidification comes into play and how it can affect the reefs.

The photosynthesis process takes up dissolved inorganic carbon that would otherwise lower the pH in the water.

At night, plants engage in an opposite process called respiration, which breaks down the organic matter and dissolve it into inorganic carbon.

“In places where you have pollution of nitrogen and phosphorous you see higher swings between (potential hydrogen) levels day and night, and that is something that the reef might not prefer,” Dulai said.

While streams are a point source and can potentially transport larger amounts of pollutants into the ocean. Streams aren’t always full; some tend to run only during certain times of the year.

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Unseen, submarine groundwater discharge can have a chronic effect on the reefs. Photo by Jessica Else.

Submarine groundwater discharge, however is a 24-7 gig.

“It’s not as evident (as stream flow) and groundwater might have lower values, but it’s chronic,” said Curt Storlazzi, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

He continued: “We’ve got cars leaking oil, leach fields going into the groundwater.”

Lava tubes and other pathways take the water from mauka to makai and usually there’s a diffused flow from the aquifers that surrounds the periphery of the island.

In some cases, like when you find that cold spot of water in a bay, it comes out from the ground in a more focused stream, diffusing pollutants into the ocean along with the fresh water.

In 2003, Dulai did a comparison of Hawaiian near-shore ocean pH levels and open-ocean pH levels, using data from the Hawaii Department of Health and from the University of Hawaii’s offshore monitoring station, Station Aloha.

They found that the Kauai locations they tested had ocean acidification happening twice as fast as that at Station Aloha, which has been measuring increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in the open ocean.

Then, in 2007, Dulai teamed up with the local Surfrider chapter and Carl Berg (head of the Kauai Surfrider Blue Water Task Force) in 2007 to do a water quality study on Kauai’s South Shore.

Dulai and Berg found data that points to pesticides in groundwater as well as other pollutants.

“We have shown that groundwater has just as much pesticides dissolved in it as surface water,” Dulai said. “So this groundwater discharge might be an important pathway for some of the pesticide into the ocean. “

Oil from cars, lawn care and cleaning products, insecticides and pesticides from home use, and things like caffeine and anti-seizure medication can leak into the groundwater from sources as it makes its way to the ocean.

The question of what’s harming the reefs and causing their worldwide decline is complex and has different parts in play, Storlazzi said, but he and other experts say SGD is one piece of that puzzle.

“The reef appears to have chronic stressors and a lot of it is being caused by human induced factors,” said Storlazzi. “Anything leaking from the yard or from the street is going into the groundwater.”


Solution search: rallying to save the reefs

Fourth in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 22, 2017. Photos by Jessica Else.
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Cesspools can leak polutants into the watershed, which carries them to the reefs.

HANALEI — A different way to process waste could be the answer to the problem of cesspools leaking bacteria, nutrients and pharmaceuticals that can affect human and marine health.

That’s because things like bacteria, pharmaceuticals, excess nutrients and hormones leak from cesspools and septic systems and onto the coral reefs surrounding the island, experts say.

“Some chemicals, such as human-based estrogen, have been detected on coral reefs in close proximity to sewage sources, but the impacts to corals are unclear,” said Eric Brown, marine ecologist with National Parks Service.

And it’s still not clear how much of the pollutants that are in the water are from agricultural activities versus urban cesspools and septic systems.

“Tracer studies in Hanalei indicated that nutrients such as nitrogen coming from land were associated with fertilizer rather than domestic sewage,” Brown said.

The same was true for tracer studies of cesspools at Kalaupapa.

“The excess nitrogen in the system, however, can result in harmful microalgae blooms in Hawaii, so in areas where sewage derived nitrogen is prevalent, then it can cause problems,” Brown said.

There are an estimated 14,000 cesspools on Kauai.

So, efforts are ongoing on both Kauai’s north and south shores to switch out old septic systems and cesspools for advanced treatment units, or ATUs.

“They treat the water and turn it almost potable again,” said Tom Goff, who has been involved with wastewater for about 15 years.

Goff, who owns and operates Island Septic Solutions in Makaweli, has now installed seven different types of ATUs, two of them on Kauai — one in Hanapepe and one in Lawai.

Septic systems and cesspools just hold waste; neither treats the material.

Septic systems have a tank that holds the material while it decomposes and then goes out into a leach field, cesspools are a hole in the ground, simply put, that sometimes drain into a septic system.

ATUs have three chambers: a trash chamber that collects waste, a treatment chamber and a clarifying clamber. Once waste travels through the three chambers, there’s the option of disinfection with ultraviolet light.

After it’s been treated, the nearly-potable water, which “looks clear and very much like clean water,” Goff said, or has been disinfected with UV light, goes into a leech field.

With extra equipment, it could even be funneled into an underground drip grid.

The two ATU systems he’s installed so far are made of plastic imported from a company on the mainland and assembled on Kauai. Goff said the goal is to purchase forms and actually make the infrastructure for ATUs on-island.

“We’ll be able to employ some more people on the island and help protect the environment at the same time,” Goff said.

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A clear waterfall delivers fresh water to a pool in the Kauai mountains.

The idea is a good solution to two of the island’s challenges according to Kapaa marine biologist, Katherine Muzik.

“Pharmaceuticals and hormones, all that stuff that’s coming out of the cesspools, are showing up in the ocean,” Muzik said. “We have to change (the island’s wastewater system), and that’d also be jobs.”

Finding employment within the realm of the environment is difficult, Muzik said, and more job openings would help boost environmental conservation activities and awareness.

“That’s why ATUs are so exciting, because they would employ landscapers and people to drive the bulldozers,” Muzik said. “It’d be a lot of work to replace (every septic and cesspool) on the island.”

In Hanalei, homeowners could get around $15,000 in federal and state money to replace their current wastewater system with an ATU, thanks to the Hanalei Watershed Hui.

There’s also a possibility of securing $10,000 in tax credits from the state.

In December, the hui secured funds from the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health to assist in replacing cesspools with ATU systems distributed by Waipono Pure, a Honolulu company.

They’re focusing on cesspools over septic systems, because they’re more harmful for the environment.

“We can’t force someone to use one system over another, but we do have one that we recommend,” said Maka‘ala Ka‘aumoana, executive director of the Hanalei Watershed Hui.

Waipono Pure is the least expensive system that still has UV disinfection capabilities, Ka‘aumoana said.

Goff is installing ATU systems from the distributor Norweco.

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The Hanakaiai Stream delivers fresh water to the ocean on Kauai.

The Hanalei Watershed Hui has the opportunity to replace cesspools at 15 owner-occupied properties and at two vacation rentals.

The contract allows for grant money to cover up to half the cost for design, engineering and installation, up to $15,000 for owner occupied homes.

For vacation rentals, the hui can pay up to 25 percent or up to $7,500 for the project.

The grant money has a three-year expiration period and it’s a year into the time frame.

“We haven’t had any takers yet and that’s discouraging,” Ka‘aumoana said. “I’d like to have some people out and the money won’t be around forever.”

Both Goff and Ka‘aumoana said prices on ATU projects, everything included, varies depending on access and other factors on the properties, but can generally run in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

A drawback to installing an ATU is that they require electricity to operate and a backup generator will be required in case of power outages.

“It has a pump and a fan and this UV light so you’ll add something to your electricity bill,” Ka’aumoana said.

But those who are looking for a way to help out the environment, or to update their wastewater storage anyway, the opportunity is available.

“It’s important that we protect our water quality and this is a way to do it,” Goff said.


Hint of Return: new corals encourage observers

Fifth in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 23, 2017. Photos in this article document corals along the north shore of Kauai, taken by Terry Lilley.

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HANALEI, KAUAI — Tom Woods couldn’t believe his eyes when he went to check on the sick and dead coral he’d been monitoring at Anini Beach on Kauai’s North Shore.

There were new corals intermingled with the existing reef that he has been monitoring through ReefGuardians Hawaii, along with Robin Mazor.

“Next time we went out we said, ‘does it seem like there’s more than last time?’,” he said. “We’re in there about once a week and my god, this is amazing.”

The moment Mazor and Woods saw changes in the coral cover they called Terry Lilley, of Hanalei, who has been monitoring the reefs around Kauai and taking extensive footage, documenting their health.

He said he’s seeing the same thing happen all over the North Shore, particularly at Waipa where the reef was nearly decimated between the bleaching events in 2014 and 2015 and black band disease that swept the reefs around the same time.

At Waipa, Lilley said the area was covered in blue rice coral in 2012 and had an average of 30 to 40 percent coral cover.

By 2015, Lilley documented 1 percent coral cover at Waipa and this year the coral cover is back to between 10 and 20 percent.

“From Ke’e to Kilauea, this entire coastline has this kind of coral growth,” Lilley said.

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Lilley theorizes that it’s a change in military activities in waters around the areas where coral is growing back that’s allowing for new growth.

He says changes in electromagnetic frequencies of military microwave towers and the beginning of an underwater electronic pulse surveillance system in 2012 created electromagnetic radiation that harms the coral.

But, leaders at Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility say that theory “defies the laws of physics,” because electromagnetic radiation doesn’t travel well through water.

“I have a bachelor’s degree in physics and the wavelength of microwaves, that’s the reason you don’t get cell service underwater,” said Capt. Vincent Johnson, head of PMRF.

Climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollutants all have had their hand in impacting the reef, and some say compounds in sunscreen from ocean users could be factoring into the problem as well.

It’s a chemical that John Fauth, a biology professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, dubbed harmful to the reef.

In a study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, where he did toxicology studies to see the effects of the chemical on coral, he says he found it causes their exoskeletons to turn white.

It can also damage the adult corals’ DNA, the study found, and can deform baby corals.

With the amount of sunscreen that beachgoers use in Hawaii, it could have an effect on coral health, but not everyone agrees with the theory.

Dan Knorr, who developed a “reef-safe” sunscreen containing oxybenzone, president of Tropical Seas in Orlando Beach, Florida, says the studies that condemn the chemical didn’t use “realistic ocean conditions.”

“It’s not about the ingredients, but how the ingredients are processed that makes our formulas safe for our skin as well as our ocean and its inhabitants,” Knorr said.

The University of South Florida study used the chemical DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide) to solubilize oxybenzone, which is another problem, in Knorr’s opinion.

“Reef Safe does not utilize DMSO in our formulas, nor is DMSO naturally occurring in the ocean,” he said. “Furthermore, oxybenzone is not water soluble.”

While oxybenzone’s effects on the reefs are being debated, the Hawaii Legislature is considering a ban and labeling requirements for sunscreens and personal care products that containing the chemical.

On Kauai, marine biologist Carl Berg said he doesn’t think oxybenzone is the most pressing problem when it comes to direct human contact.

A bigger issue is what he calls the danger of people loving the reefs to death.

“I don’t think oxybenzone is as bad of a problem as people stepping on the corals,” Berg said.

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Whatever the factors and inputs that are affecting the health of the reefs are at play, a glimmer of hope seems to be shining through in some spots, for instance, in Hanalei Bay.

Eric Brown, a marine ecologist with the National Parks Service, is analyzing data from that location recorded in 2016.

“There is definitely new coral growth occurring as well as the addition of new recruits,” Brown said. “But, until I finish analyzing the 2016 data, (I won’t know) if the new growth exceeds the mortality in Hanalei Bay.”


Reef Research: Scientists crunching coral data

Sixth in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 24, 2017.
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Jessica Else joins a turtle to inspect some coral in Anini Bay. Photo by Robin Mazor.

LIHUE — New information could be on the horizon for the world’s declining coral reefs, as well as a more complete picture of their health.

Researchers are combing through data taken from Kauai and other islands in the Pacific through the Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program.

Studies conducted last summer off the Napali Coast by Bernardo Vargas-Angel and his team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contributed to the data.

The goal is to establish reef health trends to be used in further research.

“It gives context to some of the local efforts in terms of these are the changes that are being observed,” Vargas-Angel said.

The Main and Northwest Hawaiian Islands are on a three-year cycle for the research cruise, and it’s already making way for the Mariana Islands.

Eric Brown, a marine ecologist with the National Parks Service, is analyzing data from Hanalei Bay, recorded in 2016. He’s waiting to finish the analysis to see if he can measure any increased coral cover.

“The before and after data set hopefully will shed some light on the impacts of the bleaching event,” he said. “We’re trying to get a better handle on the threats and where they are occurring spatially.”

Pollutant inputs, sediment loads, temperature changes, ocean chemistry changes, freshwater inputs are all on the list of things that could threaten reef health.

Ruth Gates, at the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology, is doing some of that cutting-edge research. She and her team are cross-breeding different characteristics of corals that survived the 2014 and 2015 bleaching events.

The hope is to breed a species that can coexist and adapt with rising sea temperatures, which experts say is the number one cause of bleaching.

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This shows a coral at Anini, taken by Terry Lilley.

Henrietta Dulai, a geochemist and associate professor at the University of Hawaii who studies submarine groundwater discharge, has been looking into some of the things other than bleaching that could have an effect on the reefs.

She and her team are studying the pollutants that are traveling through the unseen pathways of the watershed.

They’re also looking at how the increased nutrients that travel with them affect the corals by changing the chemical balance in the sea, leading to ocean acidification.

“We need to do more studies, because maybe they can adjust to this, but we don’t know. Potentially it’s affecting the reef,” she said.

In Kapaa, marine biologist Katherine Muzik has been tending an underwater coral project, named Mala Moana, or “Ocean Garden” in Hawaiian.

The site is in front of Hotel Coral Reef, just over 300 feet from shore, where Muzik has transplanted fragments of living coral under a permit from the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The marine biologist got the permit to transplant the corals from January 2015 to December 2015. The last coral she planted was on Dec. 31, 2015.

These are corals that she finds rolling around free on the sand and puts back into the substrate using Epoxy glue, which was mandated by the state permit.

In December, of the 10 cauliflower corals she planted, only one survived. She only found one porkchop coral still alive. Of the four pieces of mound coral Muzik found, all are surviving.

Muzik is working on a permit to continue transplanting the “corals of opportunity” and while she’s doing that, she’s also doing what she can to monitor the condition of the waters around her Mala Moana.

She’s one of a group of scientists worldwide, people like Vargas-Angel and Brown as well, trying to save the reefs.

“We’re getting more aware of how our activities on land are affecting the organisms in the ocean,” Vargas-Angel said. “It’s important to know how these connections work.”


Diving in: Key to learning is underwater immersion

Seventh in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 25, 2017.
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Jessica Else examines a frogfish sitting on some coral in Anini Bay. Photo by Robin Mazor

MOLOAA — Anela Quintero can name more than a handful of corals as soon as she sees them.

“We can spot it ourselves, ones like cauliflower or boulder corals,” said the fourth-grader at Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School. “Boulder coral kind of looks like a big rock.”

She said she’s also learned about how the reefs block the bigger waves from reaching the shore by being out in the bay, swimming through the water with her kumus.

Katie Nalesere, education and outreach coordinator for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources, has also been joining Kawaikini School during their field trips.

She said getting kids into the water is the most effective way to teach them about the reefs.

“Seeing the coral with their own eyes and building a personal connection to the resource is the best,” Nalesere said.

Underwater, students learn firsthand about different shapes of corals, that a healthy coral is a colorful coral, and about the importance of coral as a fish habitat, she said.

“However, when we can’t do that, one of the best activities I do is building coral colonies out of clay,” Nalesere said. “It’s even better when we get to do both.”

On Kauai’s North Shore, Robin Mazor with ReefGuradians Hawaii is gearing up for a summer of opportunities for kids to get in the water and learn about corals.

“With more education, there will be a greater amount of people who want to protect it,” she said. “Getting people in the water creates that connection and hopefully fosters a feeling of caring, respect and understanding.”

Kids are exposed to stories about people who are exploring the environments they’re learning about, Mazor said, and some want that experience.

Mazor is looking for volunteers and fundraising for the ReefGuardians Hawaii underwater educational snorkel expeditions to places like Anini Bay for kids in the summer.

Also on the way to the island is a 50-foot inflatable reef, one that will arrive at The Storybook Theatre in Hanapepe just in time for summer.

Evelyn Roth, creator of the inflatable reef and other larger-than-life animals from marine and land environments, will be a special guest at The Storybook Theater from June 10 to June 30.

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Students explore an inflatable coral reef display by Evelyn Roth.

Projects targeted at kids like the colorful, massive inflatable and interactive reef, are imperative to catch attention and educate the next generation about the health of the coral and the way to preserve it, experts say.

“Children who learn to care for the reef now will become the greatest stewards of our reefs in the future,” Nalesere said. “Not only that, but in the present day, the enthusiasm of children for the reef is carried into the home and family.”


Your Part: Learn how to make a difference

Eigth and last in a series written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published March 26, 2017.
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Photo by Terry Lilley.

ANINI — In about 4 feet of water on a sunny morning in Anini Bay, Hawaii’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a, or a reef triggerfish, zigzagged through a tunnel in the reef.

It leads a solitary life, nibbling on the coral and creating sand in its wake, but it’s not the only thing that lives within the underwater infrastructure that corals create.

“The reef is home to countless creatures,” said Robin Mazor of ReefGuardians Hawaii. “And all of it is dependent upon the coral. It all starts there.”

A little way off from the triggerfish’s domain, a large branching cauliflower coral stretched from the seafloor, providing shelter for a cluster of ‘alo’ilo’i, or Hawaiian dascyllus.

Turtles cruised through the shallow bay, munching on vegetation growing in the sand and around the coral, or hanging out for a quick cleaning session from a variety of fish species that eat algae.

And that’s just one of many places around Kauai where people can see vibrant underwater life. Turtles, fish and even an occasional shark can be seen at places like Poipu, Makua and Koloa Landing.

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Inspecting undersea life at Waipa. Photo by Terry Lilley.

But those who don’t spend time underwater might be unaware of the teeming life below the waves, or the threats it faces. ReefGuardians Hawaii wants to change that.

Education and direct exposure are the two tools the organization plans to use. Some of those tools are already in place, like Eyes of the Reef — which allows anyone who is interested to help gather data about the health of the reefs around Hawaii.

Some strategies are in the works, like educational snorkeling sessions for kids this summer on Kauai, for which ReefGuardians is gathering volunteers.

“I think the ultimate goal is to get more people involved in actively caring about the reef and collecting information about our reefs through programs such as Eyes of the Reef,” said Katie Nalesere, education and outreach coordinator for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources.

While those with constant access to the water can learn about the environment firsthand, and can actively help with efforts to save the coral reefs, many who come to Hawaii are visiting the islands for a short time.

That’s where video footage from Hanalei marine biologist Terry Lilley comes into the picture.

He’s working with Tom Woods, who is also part of ReefGuardians Hawaii, to put together a membership-based website where folks can see footage of Hawaii’s underwater life before they arrive.

“This is a site where people can learn about the sea life from a Hawaiian cultural viewpoint, and see the connection of it all,” Woods said. “We’ll share clips from the thousands of hours of video and give people the experience before they get here.”

The underwater footage also will be used as a teaching tool, showing proper behavior while on the reef — like not stepping directly on the corals and allowing the animals space when you’re in their vicinity.

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Making friends with a pencil urchin at Waipa. Photo by Terry Lilley.

Education is key

Education is the key to preserving the reefs, said Eric Brown, a marine ecologist with the National Parks Service, because even the best management practices really only address the results of the problem.

Undertaking the best management practices when it comes to upslope development, establishing marine managed areas, treating sewage adequately, reducing carbon emissions, enforcing conservation laws, are all “excellent steps to protect coral reef ecosystems,” he said.

But, Brown said, people will not change their poor behavior patterns unless they begin to understand how their actions impact how reef ecosystems function, and how important these reefs are to their own health and survival.

“Ultimately, compliance is better than enforcement,” he said.

Education and awareness of how individual actions impact the reefs is imperative, but there’s another important step to ensuring thriving reefs worldwide. That’s the opinion of Ku’ulei Rodgers, coral reef biologist at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Rodgers said individuals actually have to make the effort to change their habits, and one thing people can do to help is to reduce their individual carbon footprint.

It’s tweaks in individual, daily routines and activities that are going to make a difference.

“This is the only way (to save the reefs),” she said.

Eating locally for coral

Food consumption is one of the areas where people can make a difference for the planet and for the reefs, which are valued globally at $9.9 trillion, according to a study published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

“Buying and eating locally is very important in helping to reduce individual carbon footprint,” Rodgers said. “On Kauai, they’re very good about eating local foods.”

Eating locally reduces the amount of food that’s shipped across the Pacific, she said, which takes a lot of energy, fuel and money.

“The other thing you can do is eat lower on the food chain. Every time you go up the food chain, you use 10 times more energy,” she said. “For example, it takes 10 pounds of soybeans to produce one pound of beef.”

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Breadfruit is just one of the many locally sourced fruits and vegetables on Kauai.

Eating a plant-based diet, low in meat and other products from higher up on the food chain, will result in less carbon emissions going into the ocean and the air. “It saves on water, too,” she said. “There are a lot of environmental impacts to eating meat.”

In order to affect change, Mazor said it’s important that people feel capable, and the way to increase a capable, caring population is to allow people the chance to get to know the environment on a personal level.

“There are those of us that just have to dive into the sea,” she said. “I’m hoping that we can together dive into caring and protecting the sea.”

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A frogfish clings to the coral in Anini Bay. Photo by Robin Mazor.

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