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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Invasive species response squad sworn to protect native marine life

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The state is establishing a kind of SWAT team of trained divers to attack alien marine organisms that can overwhelm Hawai'i's native nearshore ecosystems.

Gracilaria salicornia is one of the most aggressive alien species that threaten Hawai'i's native nearshore ecosystems.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Aquatic Invasive Species Response Team will target some of the 350 marine species that are either known to be introduced or have yet to be identified as alien or native.

Among its initial projects will be the eradication of an infestation of the aggressive snowflake coral, Carijoa riisei, from pier pilings at the state's Port Allen Harbor on Kaua'i.

The snowflake coral is first known to have appeared in Pearl Harbor in the early 1970s. Initially, it was not thought to be a serious problem. Then it moved into deeper water, where it grows fast, overrunning native marine life. The soft coral has developed into an aggressive invader in the black coral beds off Makapu'u, and scientists fear it could spread from the West Kaua'i harbor to other Kaua'i waters.

It is just one of many alien species that have taken hold in Hawaiian waters.

Bishop Museum invertebrate zoologist Lu Eldredge said that 23 percent of the species in Pearl Harbor are considered introduced or haven't yet been identified by scientists as either introduced or native. In Kane'ohe Bay, it's about 14 percent. Eldredge and Bishop Museum biologist Steve Coles said that the number of alien species seems to be dramatically higher in harbors and restricted bays than on the open reefs.

When there is a new aggressive alien species, it's important to act early, Eldredge said.

"Once marine organisms have gotten established, it is very difficult to eradicate them," he said.

However, University of Hawai'i botanist and Hawaiian seaweed expert Isabella Abbott said the scientific community needs to be careful about declaring that one species or another is introduced. Much of the ocean floor around the Hawaiian Islands has not been thoroughly investigated, and new native species are being found all the time.

"A lot of the stuff that has never been seen before is not necessarily new species" to the Islands, she said.

The response team should be fully staffed within the next two weeks, said Tony Montgomery, an aquatic biologist with the state Division of Aquatic Resources who will oversee the squad.

Marine biologist Sara Pelleteri, with Aquatic Invasive Species Response Team members Shawn Fujimoto and Kater Bourdon, holds "gorilla seaweed," or Gracilaria salicornia, an alien algae infesting island waters.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Marine biologist Sara Pelleteri will supervise the team, which includes three paid technicians and one AmeriCorps volunteer. The team is funded with $200,000 annually from the Hawai'i Invasive Species Council. Two members named so far are Shawn Fujimoto and Kater Bourdon.

"This is pretty innovative," Pelleteri said of the idea to assign a dedicated team to alien invasive species.

Another of Pelleteri's response team projects will be the fine-tuning of an underwater seaweed vacuum cleaner mounted on a barge. The device, nicknamed "Supersucker," is designed to remove alien algae from reefs without leaving behind bits and pieces that can develop into new colonies.

The device is still being tested to find out how best to use it and to identify any problems. The project is a collaboration of The Nature Conservancy, the Hawai'i Coral Reef Research Initiative, the Hawai'i Invasive Species Committee, the University of Hawai'i, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state Division of Aquatic Resources and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"The goal is to start controlling the spread of various alien algae in Kane'ohe Bay on a larger scale than we can do with volunteer manual cleanups," said Eric Co of The Nature Conservancy, which owns Supersucker.

Pelleteri said that in addition to rapid response to new marine threats, her team will be working to help control several alien algae that are so well established that eradication may not be possible.

Among the worst of them are one that has been named "gorilla seaweed" or Gracilaria salicornia, and another called "smothering seaweed," which includes two very similar looking species, Eucheuma genticulatum and Kappaphycus.

The team also will coordinate information and activities with various government, private and volunteer groups that are involved in aquatic issues.

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