We can help prevent coral bleaching

There are those who recognize the ocean is in trouble.

And there are those who recognize they can do something about it and take action.

This is one of those times we all need to recognize we each have roles to play, we each have an impact on the ocean’s health, and we each can be part of the solution.

Here is what is happening that should raise alarms for all of us, whether we believe we can be part of the solution or not.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch program, Hawaii’s coral reefs are entering a major bleaching event within the next two months, if not sooner.

Rising sea temperatures are likely to cause corals in Hawaiian waters to bleach and even die. According to NOAA scientist Jamison Gove, “Ocean temperatures are extremely warm right now across Hawaii. They’re about 3°F warmer than what we typically experience in mid-August. If the ocean continues to warm even further as predicted, we are likely to witness a repeat of unprecedented bleaching events in 2014 and 2015.”

“We’re already observing bleaching of corals in West Hawaii, along with some paling of other species at some of our long-term monitoring sites,” said Nikki Sanderlin, acting aquatic biologist for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources West Hawaii district office.

Coral bleaching, simply put, is bad for the ocean, and it’s bad for us.

Coral bleaching is a change from normal coloration of browns, yellows and greens to a nearly white color. This change occurs when corals are stressed by environmental changes, especially temperature increases.

Although corals can recover from moderate levels of heat, if it is prolonged they will die, says the DLNR. But scientists say that reducing secondary stress on corals during these bleaching events can improve the chances of coral survival.

DAR Administrator Brian Neilson explained: “We know this bleaching event is coming, and it’s probably going to be worse than the ones we experienced four and five years ago. West Hawaii experienced a 50% mortality rate, and Maui experienced 20-30% mortality rates on fixed DAR monitoring sites. We’re asking for everyone’s help in trying to be proactive and to minimize any additional stress we put on our corals.”

Kapaa High School is setting a great example. It recently received the NOAA Ocean Guardian award. Allen Tom, superintendent of NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, presented Kapaa High School with $4,000 in funding for work as part of the NOAA Ocean Guardian School Program on Thursday.

The school has committed to protecting the ocean by reducing, reusing and recycling their trash, restoring watershed areas in their school and community, and reducing their carbon footprint.

That’s something we can all do. And now is the time, as DLNR and NOAA are asking for our help, starting with:

w Avoid touching corals or coral reefs while diving, snorkeling or swimming (unfortunately, it’s all too common to see people doing exactly that);

w Do not stand or rest on corals;

w Use reef-safe sunscreens;

w Boaters should use mooring buoys or anchor only in sand areas;

w Keep anchor chains off the reef;

w Fishermen should reduce or stop their take of herbivores, such as parrotfish (uhu), surgeonfish and sea urchins. Herbivores clear reefs of algae, which over-grow and kill corals during bleaching events;.

w Take extra precaution to prevent other potential contaminants from getting to the ocean: Dirt from poorly managed commercial and private earth work; chemical pollution from fertilizers, soaps, detergents used in outdoor watering, car washing, etc.; other contaminants like oil from poor containment practices.

“These are actually things we should be doing all the time, but it’s especially important now,” Neilson said in the DLNR press release. “We’d also like swimmers, snorkelers and divers to report when and where they see both bleaching and healthy corals. Those healthy corals may provide valuable information about how some corals are better able to survive these types of events.”

In October, DLNR will introduce an initiative aimed at tour operators to inform their guests about good reef practices. Numerous operators are already educating people on their boats, asking them not to stand on, sit on, or touch the reef, and to use reef-safe sunscreen products.

On a recent tour to Kalakekua Bay, Captain Dante Leuenberger told snorkelers, “The bottom is alive. Coral is a very delicate animal. For your own safety and the health of the reef we ask you to stay off the bottom. Don’t touch anything, don’t stand up anywhere.”

DLNR and NOAA are using new technology to better understand the real-time extent of predicted bleaching events. Arizona State University, which created and is maintaining a Hawaii coral website, www.hawaiicoral.org, is providing weekly satellite imagery which helps identify bleaching areas.

The point is simple and it’s crystal clear. We can make a diffference in the health of our ocean. Action is needed, right now, so each of us must step up and recognize we are not innocent bystanders. We can be, and must be, part of the solution.

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