LIHUE — In the midst of the global climate change conversation and concerns about rising sea levels, new species are being discovered in what’s known as the “Twilight Zone” in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
It’s the mesophotic zone for a coral reef — the area 100 to 500 feet beneath the ocean surface, and research from the depths was brought to light at a recent symposium in Honolulu, where more than 200 scientists recently gathered to swap findings on new and endemic species in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
The November Hawaii Symposium on Science in Support of Archipelagic Management highlighted robotics and submersibles, new species of fish and coral and species native to places like Kure Atoll, where 100 percent of the fish are Hawaiian endemics.
In a time when conversation swirls around ocean conservation issues like the tons of plastic caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, some people on Kauai say that marrying science with outreach could be a key to social change.
“I have always found that when people become educated about the harmful things done to the environment, they eventually make the necessary changes, regardless of any reactionary self-interested corporate decisions,” said Gordon LaBedz, of the whale conservation group Kohola Leo.
Katherine Muzik, marine biologist and Kauai resident, has dedicated much of her life to coral research.
“My Ph.D. research was a study of deep sea octocoral populations all the way to Midway,” she said. “These ancient octocorals are increasingly threatened to near extinction by careless human activities.”
These types of corals have polyps with eight tentacles.
“I first personally observed these beautiful and important octocoral forests from the windows of the Star II submarine off Makapu’u, Oahu, over 40 years ago and reported on them as part of my Ph.D. research,” Muzik said. “I am thrilled to learn of the growing interest in the lush and diverse deep-sea coral communities of the Hawaiian Archipelago.”
She says studying these “ancient corals” could give clues to resilience and help with conservation of shallow reefs, but also that they themselves should be protected for their own unique qualities.
LaBedz mentions a point that Muzik also refers to often — that these deep-water corals aren’t subjected to the same human impacts as shallow water corals are, and that makes for good research.
“Coral doesn’t get bathed in pesticides, run off and sewage (in the marine monument). It is a dream come true for marine scientists,” he said.
Scientists are also continuing studies on plastic ingestion in marine animals and seabirds from the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Recently, during a five-week mission, NOAA divers collected more than 160,000 pounds of garbage from the Marine Monument.
And while attention is on Papahanaumokuakea after the marine debris expedition and an October hurricane eroded East Island, some say it’s cleanups closer to home that are really going to have an impact.
“We pull more plastic off Kauai than they do from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands,” said Carl Berg, science advisor for Surfrider Kauai. “The difference is, we pull weekly and they go up there once a year.”
Surfrider’s Net Patrols and organized Beach Cleanups are held on Kauai regularly and Berg said they’ve noticed something: “We have shown if you clean a beach, the same amount comes up the next day,” he said.
They’ve also noticed most of the marine debris isn’t from household garbage.
“Most of the stuff is from the Northeast Asian fishing fleet,” Berg said. “We have to stop the fleet from losing and dumping stuff.”