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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Island reef study provides insight into destruction

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

The first island-by-island assessment of the state's coral reefs has found few surprises but considerable damage to an asset estimated to be worth $364 million a year to Hawai'i's economy.

More information

• A limited number of copies of the Hawai'i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program's report are available at the program's office. Call 956-7479.

• The report and more detailed information are available at the program's Web site at www.hawaii.edu/ssri/hcri.

Even before the comprehensive Hawai'i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program report was released, researchers knew that the coral reef ecosystem is being damaged by overfishing, pollution, physical destruction from anchors and being walked on, alien and invasive species, and algae blooms.

What's new is the reef initiative program has brought together University of Hawai'i researchers and resource managers from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to seek out the best ways to counter the threats faced by Hawai'i's coral reefs.

"The program has identified the areas that need research, first letting the researchers do their thing, and then the managers use that targeted research to work on resource management," said Peter Young, state land and natural resources director. "We all need to work together to make sure we can preserve the reefs."

To that end, the report — based on four years of work under the reef initiative program — is done in plain-language style in the hope it will educate and generate more support among lawmakers and the general public for this defining state resource.

Without a healthy reef, some of Hawai'i's most important assets — beaches, huge surf and snorkeling and diving spots — will deteriorate, the report says. The report estimates the economic value of Hawai'i's reefs at $364 million a year in added value in areas including tourism, fisheries, property value and research.

The report advocates protective management to sustain the coastal reef ecosystem and notes that the world has already lost about 30 percent of its reefs. Hawai'i's coral reefs make up 80 percent of all reefs under U.S. jurisdiction.

Two of the most serious problems are reef disease, which has devastated reefs in the Caribbean, and alien algae, which grows into a thick mat that covers the reef, blocking sunlight that coral and reef plants need to survive, said Michael Hamnett, director of the reef initiative program.

Left unchecked, the algae could come to dominate the Waikiki ecosystem, including the Diamond Head shoreline. Invasive seaweeds have also been a problem off Maui, in California and in the Mediterranean Sea.

"We need to reduce the amount of nutrients going into the near-shore waters," Hamnett said. "We don't need to study that any more. You put nutrients in, it is going to feed algae. We need to stop taking herbivores out of system, the fish that eat the algae. We need to prevent alien species from being introduced and eradicate the ones out there now. It's not rocket science."

Tens of tons of alien algae have been taken out of Kane'ohe Bay and Waikiki, he said, and there is a lot more to remove.

"It's amazing that Lake Wilson, which is a relatively small area, has gotten so much attention and there is nothing near that for Waikiki Beach and there is algae all over the place," he said.

The report recommends steps to maintain Hawai'i's reefs, including: keeping scientists and government officials working together; identifying the physical and chemical mechanisms that result in algal blooms; imposing regulations to minimize polluted runoff; restricting some areas from fishing; and starting a public education campaign.

Alexander Gould, 9, the voice of Nemo in the animated movie "Finding Nemo," filmed a public service announcement during the weekend to help make people aware of coral reefs.

Yesterday, Gould signed copies of the DVD at the Waikiki Aquarium and said while making the film he learned how important it is to care for the ocean and "the really cool fish and animals that live in it."

"Did you know that reefs make the sand for the beaches?" Gould asked a group of home-schooled students gathered at the aquarium. "The reefs make the surf breaks and it makes homes for the fish and some of the food the fish eat.

"I want to keep playing in the ocean and watching all the cool fish. The adults can help too, but if we want to keep playing on the reefs for years to come, then we are the ones that have to take care of it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.