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Worsening coral crisis needs our attention — and help

Our corals are in trouble.

They have been for some time now, but the crisis is rapidly worsening. A solution, if there is one, is needed before it’s too late. And some say it’s reaching that point. If you go snorkeling at Tunnels Beach, you’ll find an example of the extent of the problem.

Nearly a quarter of the inside reef has bleached coral. Most of the blue rice corals are dead, as are most of the brown rice corals. The situation isn’t much better at the deeper, outer reef. There is less bleached coral but again, almost all the blue rice corals are dead and about half of the brown rice corals have died. If you think that’s an anomaly, go for a dive over at Anini Beach. There, you’ll find that much of the lagoon has been affected by coral bleaching. The blue and brown rice corals and mound corals are dead or diseased.

This isn’t just a local issue. It’s global. Coral bleaching has been reported throughout the northern Pacific, Indian, and western Atlantic Oceans, and the Caribbean is expected to show signs of damage. Scientists believe the bleaching is caused by higher than normal ocean temperatures, although some say there are other factors involved, especially on Kauai’s North Shore.

So what’s the harm with bleaching? While it doesn’t always kill corals, it makes them highly susceptible to disease and other natural and man-caused stresses. According to the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources, this is the second year of severe bleaching across the entire Hawaiian Archipelago. It looks as bad as it sounds.

The Keolahou, a DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources research vessel, recently visited Molokini Crater, three miles off Maui’s south coast. Their work is part of a three-year-long coral bleaching monitoring project. While the researchers dove and laid out transect lines to tag coral heads and to photograph them, hundreds of tourists snorkeled nearby.

“While the scene underwater is visually beautiful, we hope our visitors realize what they’re seeing is a result of climate change,” said Darla White, the DAR special projects coordinator who led the dive team. “Conservatively, at least one half of the corals at Molokini are currently bleached; probably more.”

This isn’t the first global battle with coral bleaching. It happened most recently in 2010, and in 1998, when nearly 20 percent of the world’s corals and 10 percent of the Great Barrier Reef population was devastate. Researchers estimated at least 5 percent of the world’s coral this year could be lost, and even more will be affected by bleaching next year.

On Kauai’s North Shore, much of the coral at Waipa Beach near Hanalei Bay is bleached and it may not recover. Live coral there could be lost forever. That’s bad, because there is no doubt that coral reefs are linked to Hawaii’s economy, culture and lifestyle.

So, what’s the solution?

There isn’t a definitive one. But there is a place to start, and it is with us.

If people were part of the problem that led to coral bleaching and coral dying off, we can be part of the solution. People certainly can help by taking care of our oceans. Don’t use them as a toilet bowl and then be surprised there are problems. Let’s not dump trash and waste into the ocean. Let’s not use so much pesticide that it’s washing into our oceans. Let’s not be careless with development and create runoffs of mud into the oceans. Let’s reduce carbon dioxide as best we can with simple changes at home.

If you aren’t too worried about the environmental effects taking place in our oceans because you think it doesn’t affect you, think again. Coral reefs protect shorelines and help provide food for 500 million people around the world. Even though coral reefs are one-tenth of 1 percent of the ocean floor by area, they are home to 25 percent of the world’s fish species.

And, of course, a collapse of coral would affect tourism. People fly thousands of miles to come to Kauai and go snorkeling and diving to see the colorful fish that are attracted to the coral. If the coral is dead, the fish will leave. Again, Tunnels is proof of this. Most of the coral there is dead and fish are fewer and fewer. It was only five years ago you could go snorkeling at Tunnels and be amazed by all the fish. Not so today. Tourists will eventually go elsewhere if the reefs and corals have been replaced by algae and mud. Hard to market that.

How else can we help? Learn what coral bleaching is and what it looks like. Report your findings to the Eyes of the Reef Network, which plays a key role in the state’s coral bleaching response plan.

North Shore marine biologist Terry Lilley reported that there are a few corals there that are not bleached and remain healthy looking. He suggests these corals be studied to determine if they have some type of immunity and perhaps they can be selectively bred to try and restore the reefs in the future. That could be a start.

And we’ve got to get started.

Mark Eakin, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coral reef watch coordinator, said it well: “You kill coral, you destroy reefs, you don’t have a place for the fish to live.”

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