Protecting the reefs

  • Terry Lilley / Special to The Garden Island

    Healthy blue rice coral grows in the Limahuli Stream lagoon in Haena.

  • Terry Lilley / Special to The Garden Island

    A healthy cauliflower coral is seen in the Limahuli Stream lagoon in Haena.

WASHINGTON — The mission to preserve Hawaii’s coral reefs could be getting a boost if legislation introduced Thursday by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) is passed.

The no-cost bill would incentivize research and support practices to preserve, sustain and restore coral reef ecosystems.

Introducing the bill, Hirono pointed out the waters surrounding Hawaii are home to more than 620 square miles of coral reef and a quarter of the world’s marine life, including thousands of native species found nowhere else in the world.

She also reminded Congress that Hawaii’s coral reefs generate nearly $800 million in economic activity each year for the state. A recent, peer-reviewed study commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the total economic value of coral reefs in the main Hawaiian Islands alone to be nearly $34 billion.

“We cannot afford to sit by as the health of our oceans continues to decline,” Hirono said. “This bill encourages federal agencies as well as the private sector to come together to find innovative solutions to help our declining reefs.”

Case pointed out the bill, which amends the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, would allow federal agencies on the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to use current funds or partner with other agencies, states, tribes, local governments or private entities to offer prize competitions to incentivize research on coral reefs.

“Prize competitions that encourage public-private partnerships, such as the one that this bill proposes, have an established record of spurring innovation that can be integrated into a next-generation federal ocean management strategy,” Case said. “This small step could generate huge leaps forward in the preservation and protection of one of the most critical and endangered corners of our natural world.”

Healthy reefs contribute to local economies through tourism, and provide shoreline protection during severe weather events by mitigating damaging wave action.

Threats to coral reefs worldwide include climate change, bleaching, disease, overfishing and pollution. In recent years, reefs in and around Hawaii have suffered due to these threats, where reefs such as Honolua Bay in Maui faced coral cover drop from 42 percent to just 9 percent between 1994 and 2006.

As highlighted in a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences on interventions to increase coral resilience, several new, innovative approaches to improving coral health have been identified within the past decade, with many others on the horizon. If enacted into law, this bill could support these and other novel practices.

In addition to Hirono, the Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act of 2019 is also co-sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

There are 11 co-sponsors in the House, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

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Jessica Else, environment reporter, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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