More help urged for Hawaii’s reef systems

More and larger marine conservation areas and stronger enforcement of fishing regulations are needed to protect Hawaii’s endangered coral reefs and fish populations, scientists say.

The state’s 11 Marine Life Conservation Districts are effective in protecting marine ecosystems, said Alan Friedlander, fisheries ecologist at the Oceanic Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But they encompass less than 1 percent of the total reef area of the main Hawaiian islands, according to a recent report.

The number and size of marine conservation areas should be increased, said Friedlander and Eric Brown, National Park Service marine ecologist for Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai.

They recommend building flexibility into the system through traditional community-based management and developing a more holistic ecosystem approach through comprehensive ocean zoning.

While Hawaii’s coral reefs aren’t as bad off as those in the Caribbean and some other areas, they face increasing stress from human and environmental impacts, the researchers said.

Among them, Brown cited: increased ocean temperatures and acidity, sea level rise, marine debris, water pollution, coastal development, tourism, alien marine species, overfishing and the aquarium trade.

A NOAA Biogeography and Oceanic Institute study of 55 reef species in the main Hawaiian islands, compared with the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, shows 75 percent are in critical or depleted condition, Friedlander said, adding that 42 percent are in bad shape.

“We are at a very critical juncture and time is of the essence,” he said. “We see what’s happening in other places. Some of it is irreparable in our lifetime.”

Added Brown: “Based on current climate (warming) projections, we have about 10 years to turn things around.”

Asked for comment, Laura Thielen, state Board of Land and Natural Resources chairwoman, said opinions differ in the fishing community about whether more conservation protection is needed but she “hears consensus” that more enforcement is needed of existing regulations.

“And from the department’s perspective, despite the fact that our reefs may not be as bad as the Caribbean, we need to act aggressively to make sure they don’t degrade to that level,” she emphasized. “Without good conservation, management and enforcement, they are likely to degrade.”

Thielen said the Aquatic Resources Division has drafted rules for an herbivore protection area that will be tested on Maui to increase fish and urchin populations that eat algae on the reef. The Super Sucker (a huge vacuum) is being used to remove alien algae from the reef in Kaneohe Bay to help urchins and other animals, she said.

The Natural Areas Reserve Commission also is looking at more land and water reserves, she said.

“We need to manage more effectively and marine protected areas is only one effort,” Thielen added. “We would like to make sure ocean recreation users’ activities don’t have negative impacts on reefs. We want to increase outreach education for people to be good stewards and increase enforcement of regulations as well.”

Friedlander and Brown are among authors of a report on “The State of Coral Reef Ecosystems of the Main Hawaiian Islands.” It was part of a report on the state of national and Pacific coral reef systems issued at an international coral reef symposium last week in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The marine ecosystems are vital to the state’s $800 million-a-year marine tourism industry, the new report points out. They have a direct economic value estimated at about $400 million a year, Brown said.

“More than anywhere else around, people in Hawaii rely on the reefs,” Friedlander said.