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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Citizens reach out, under the sea

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

A diver drifts in blue water over a coral bed sporting a colorful bloom of reef fishes.

Nanette Harter of Kihei monitors marine life at Neil's Reef off North Kihei, Maui. The Reef Environmental Education Foundation marine survey project teaches participants how to collect data useful to state wildlife managers, from more than 40 reefs in Maui County.

Photo courtesy HawaiÎi Coastal Zone Management Program

Tablet and grease pencil in hand, she tallies what she sees: kinds of fish, coral, how many of each.

She's not a scientist, but part of a fast-growing volunteer movement in Hawai'i to take responsibility for local reefs and shorelines.

Some of the volunteers are in the water regularly, but many others work in support of reefs largely from land, where they write grant applications, conduct classes on marine topics, build and erect signs, and lobby the government.

"There have been people for years doing their part — the people who walk the beach and pick up trash, and ones who take a knife diving to cut fishing lines and nets off coral heads," sad Athline Clark of the state Division of Aquatic Resources. "But there are more people engaged now than there were previously."

Experts agree Hawaiian reefs need the help. Many are overfished, and in some areas corals are trampled to death. When there is a lot of bare soil on shore, sediment flows out to settle on reefs with every rain. Aggressive alien fish and seaweed choke out native species.

"How bad does it have to get before we say there's a problem?" said Paul Jokiel, a coral reef researcher at the University of Hawai'i's Institute of Marine Biology.

Coastal volunteer Danene Warnock of Kihei, Maui, has seen the degradation firsthand. "It seems obvious to me that something needs to happen if we want to prevent eventual and possibly irreversible ecological disaster and upset," Warnock said. "I see it in the invasive species, both plant and animal, in the growing amounts of silted reef and lost habitat."

There are lots of scientists working the Hawaiian coastlines, but not enough to answer comprehensively the many questions about how the reefs are being degraded and what to do about it, said Michael Molina, a coral reef biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Just in the area of fishing, there's a huge amount of interconnectedness. Fishing pressure can change the balance between herbivores and carnivores. And if you fish down the top predators (such as sharks and ulua), what's the impact? It's very complicated," Molina said.

"We know so little about coral reefs that we can't do enough research."

That's where folks like Robin Newbold, a marine biologist, come in. She worked with Donna Brown of the Maui Community College Marine Option Program three years ago to adapt for Hawai'i a Florida-based program called REEF, or Reef Environmental Education Foundation.

They identified the kinds of data state wildlife managers need to make decisions, and set about educating community members and encouraging volunteers to begin collecting the data.

"We worked with (the Department of Land and Natural Resources) to ensure that our methodology and data would be of value to managers throughout the state, and received funding ... to push the project forward," she said.

The program conducted seminars in fish identification, invited participants on snorkeling and diving excursions, taught divers how to collect data, and began an Adopt-a-REEF program. Newbold said more than 40 reefs have been "adopted" in Maui County alone in the past year, along with others on the Big Island, O'ahu and Kaua'i.

Her volunteer divers compare fish populations in protected marine areas with those in areas open to fishing, and study differences on the sea floor, comparing types of coral and seaweed and their abundance.

Maui resident Robert Wintner, who runs the Snorkel Bob dive gear rental company, is a financial supporter of the program and a volunteer. He said the need for help is clear.

Learn more:

Hawai'i Coral Reef Initiative Research Program: www.hawaii.edu/ssri/hcri/

Hawai'i Division of Aquatic Resources: www.state.hi.us/dlnr/dar/

Malama Kai Foundation: www.malama-kai.org

ReefCheck: www.reefcheck.org

REEF survey project: www.reef.org

"With ever-increasing human population pressure, we must become stewards of the reefs or we'll lose them. Many favorite reefs already require rescue efforts," Wintner said, "like 'Ahihi on the south end (of Maui) — after being loved to near-death by the kayak companies — and Honolua on the west side, which only 10 years ago was vibrant with coral heads from rim to rim and now is mostly dead coral except for a swatch in the center."

On the Big Island, Sara Peck at the University of Hawai'i Sea Grant Extension Service works with the Reef Watchers program, training volunteers to swim "transects," or designated marine corridors, and return repeatedly to document what's there, what's new and what's gone. She said 85 people have been trained in the past year.

One threat to reefs is indiscriminate anchoring, which can scour and scar living coral. The Malama Kai Foundation raises money and works to establish mooring buoys in popular anchoring areas. Eye-bolts are cemented into the reef and attached to buoys so boaters can tie up rather than dropping anchor each time they visit.

"We do a lot of partnering with The Nature Conservancy and others. The dive industry installs the moorings," said Malama Kai's Carolyn Stewart of Waimea on the Big Island. The foundation gets grants and accepts individual donations, allowing people to adopt specific moorings, she said.

Other volunteers have taken on the role of lobbyist, advocating for establishment of protected marine areas, where you can go to look at fish but not kill them.

Along the Big Island's Puna coast, just south of Kapoho at Wai'opae Ponds, a group of residents persuaded the state to establish the Wai 'Opae Tidepools Marine Life Conservation District, and they're working to protect it. Kirk Flanders, president of the Vacationland Hawai'i Community Association, said the area is a nursery for marine life, which can spill over into neighboring reefs.

He said the community formed the Cape Kumukahi Foundation and has gotten grant money to hire college students who monitor water quality, marine life and human uses. They've found that nearly 50,000 people annually visit the coastal ponds for swimming, fishing and other recreational activities.

"We've seen a visible decline in our coastal resources. We know that government doesn't have the resources to protect it all, so we're trying to do something about it," Flanders said.

A lot of the volunteers see what they do as critical to the future of the underwater environment.

"I believe that the real changes start at the very bottom of the society," said Fernando Lopez of Kihei, part of the Maui REEF volunteer program.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.