A Floating Workshop to Save Maui's Reefs

When most people daydream about snorkeling in Maui, their minds are filled with visions of sea turtles and schools of tropical fish. Imagine floating effortlessly in the warm waters of the Pacific, where the rainbow of colors in the marine environment—deep reds of slate pencil urchins, cobalt blue water, and brilliant yellow tang fish—combine to create a Hawaiian kaleidoscope of marine biodiversity.

.

Coral reef at Olowalu Maui
Coral reef at Olowalu Maui

The truth, however, is that Maui has a problem that is simply too big to ignore:

Maui's reefs are dying. Fast. And it's time to start acting now.

As part of a joint workshop with the CORAL Reef Alliance, Trilogy recently hosted a sail with many of the island's top decision makers to address the issues facing our reefs. While some Maui reefs such as Olowalu and Molokini are currently at healthy levels, other island reefs such as Honolua Bay are experiencing a rapid rate of decline. At Kahekili Beach Park in northern Ka'anapali, the reef has lost over 50% of its coral growth over the last 20 years alone. Ma'alaea Bay—a reef once teeming with life and abuzz with the colors of the ocean—is now almost completely dead due to algal growth and disease.

Coral reef health in Maui
Coral reef health in Maui
Snorkeling at Olowalu Maui
Snorkeling at Olowalu Maui

Given Trilogy's commitment to our reefs, this is an occurrence which is as unacceptable as it is a cause for concern, so when we were approached by the CORAL Reef Alliance with the opportunity to host a "floating workshop" on reef health, we jumped at the opportunity.

Joining us on board for the workshop were Maui County Councilmembers Elle Cochran, Don Couch, Mike Victorino, and Hawaii State Senator Roz Baker. Also aboard were Liz Foote and Wes Crile of the CORAL Reef Alliance, Professor Darla White of the Division of Aquatic Resources, Tova Callender of the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, DLNR Chair William Aila, Dr. Mark Deakos of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research, Rob Parsons from the Office of the Mayor's Environmental Planning Department, and Jim Coon, charter member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, Hawaiian Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Marine and Coastal Advisory Council, and Ocean Resources Management Plan working group.

Rounding out the "Who's Who" of island influencers were everyone from land developers looking to learn about the problem of reef degradation, to representatives from Honua Kai and The Fairmont Kea Lani—two resorts that graciously sponsored our Blue'aina reef and beach cleanups.

At the heart of the issue is this: We need to address what's happening to our island reefs, we need to understand how it has happened, and we need to work with the public and legislators to ensure that it doesn't continue.

The first stop of the floating workshop was the reef at Olowalu. This massive reef structure south of Lahaina is over 1,000 acres in size, and has corals which are over 500 years old. More importantly, the reef at Olowalu has been determined to be a "Mother Reef" for much of Maui County, which means that when the the corals at Olowalu spawn, the resulting corals which are created from the spawn end up on Maui, Moloka'i, and Lana'i.

To put it another way, the large corals at Olowalu actually give birth to coral reefs which grow on other islands.

Olowalu snorkeling Maui
Olowalu snorkeling Maui
A turtle swimming in Maui
A turtle swimming in Maui

To help protect this vital marine habitat, visiting charter boats tie up to moorings to avoid anchoring on the coral. This area along West Maui is also home to the largest known population of manta rays found anywhere in the state of Hawaii, and Hawaiian green sea turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals can often be spotted in the area.

The problem, however, is that potential development in the hills above Olowalu could have dire consequences for the Olowalu reef. Aside from the coral polyps being suffocated by runoff, outside nutrients and non-natural chemicals can  lead to algae growth which degrades the reef.

This problem was summed up by  Professor Darla White, who stated that "Algae grows really fast, and coral grows really slow...it's a very delicate process out there."

So just how slowly does coral grow? Some of the large mound corals at Olowalu will only grow between 1.1-1.9 cm per year, which is slower than the movement of tectonic plates and slower than your fingernails grow!

Algae on coral in Kaanapali Maui
Algae on coral in Kaanapali Maui

After enjoying the waters at Olowalu, the workshop turned the bow of the boat northwards to the golden shorelines of Kahekili Beach Park. This large reef in Ka'anapali has been at the center of Maui controversy because of injection wells that seep harmful wastewater from the land into the reef.

Kaanapali Maui
Kaanapali Maui

This nutrient-laden wastewater has contributed to algal blooms which have smothered nearly half of the beach's live coral, and as it turns out, only 48 hours after the floating workshop, the County of Maui was found to have violated the Clean Water Act and now faces millions of dollars in penalties for allowing the wells to damage the sensitive reefs.

Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Snorkeling the clear waters of Maui
Snorkeling the clear waters of Maui

For as gloomy as  this seems, however, the good news is there is hope for Maui's reefs if they are managed in a sustainable way.

According to Wes Crile, a Hawaii Field Manager for the CORAL Reef Alliance, there are a number of ways that Maui landowners Maui can mitigate the effects of runoff. One of those solutions is called Pervious Pavement, wherein rainwater or runoff from sprinklers is allowed to soak through pavement as opposed to rushing down the hillside and out onto the reef. Another solution is rain gardens, which help to reduce runoff by harnessing water through natural plants and landscapes. "What's interesting," says Crile, "is that all this stuff that's bad for the reef is actually really good for your plants."Also, thanks to efforts of programs such as the Ka'anapali Makai Watch, the population of parrotfish—which help graze algae from reefs—has shown a meaningful increase over the last few years thanks to fishing regulations and monitoring.

Kaanapali Makai Watch Maui
Kaanapali Makai Watch Maui
Saving reefs in Maui
Saving reefs in Maui

The future of our reefs is now dependent on our continued commitment to sustainable development and creating innovative methods to protect our waters. A mere 1% of the reefs in the Main Hawaiian Islands are currently protected as marine reserves, whereas other Pacific region--such as Micronesia--are aiming to protect over 30 percent of their reefs by the year 2020.

Given our love of snorkeling in Maui and as an Ecotour certified company through the Hawaii Ecotourism Association, Trilogy champions the efforts of the CORAL Reef Alliance towards working to save our reefs. This paramount, apolitical issue is one which visitors, residents, and decision-makers can agree is in the best interest of our island, and mahalo to all of the coordinators and attendees who made this event a success.

Aloha!

Leave us a note in the comments below with more ways to protect our island reefs!

Trilogy floating workshop with coral reef alliance
Trilogy floating workshop with coral reef alliance