Kaneohe Bay is on the front lines in the battle against coral bleaching, which is caused from ocean temperatures rising due to climate change. Hawaii experienced severe bleaching events over the past two years that killed off large swaths of coral.
On Thursday, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources officials showcased how they were trying to keep the state’s coral alive despite the ongoing pressures faced by worsening bleaching events. The event was part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress, which is the largest environmental gathering in the world.
Hank Lynch, of The Nature Conservancy, needed a squeegee to keep water off his windshield while taking people out on the bay to tour the coral, which in addition to bleaching faces threats from invasive algae.
The “Super Sucker Barge” uses two large hoses to operate like a giant vacuum that slurps up invasive algae and seaweed from the coral. The algae is then turned into compost that can be used on local farms located in Windward Oahu. Officials don’t want to transport the algae to farms over the mountains for fear that it might spread to other parts of the island.
Sometimes the Super Sucker accidentally pulls in critters that should stay in the water, such as crabs and shrimp. Barge operators make sure those creatures get put back into the ocean by sifting through everything that comes on the boat through the vacuum.
DLNR officials said the state will look to get rid of algae that has taken root on Hawaii’s coral by bolstering local fish populations through various restrictions that might limit catch. As DLNR aquatic biologist Brian Neilson, right, said, “We love to see herbivores on the reef because they love to eat the algae.”
An invasive seaweed called Eucheuma denticulatum was on display for international journalists who came to Hawaii to cover the IUCN World Conservation Congress. In addition to sucking up the sea weed, state officials also plant sea urchins in the bay to eat the invasive species.
There’s an ironic twist to Kaneohe Bay’s seaweed problem. It was accidentally released into the bay by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Moku o Loe (or Coconut Island). The institute is now working vigorously to protect the coral.
DLNR fishery technician Daniel Lager provided an underwater tour of Kaneohe Bay’s coral, which has rebounded despite all the environmental stresses it has suffered from pollution, invasive species and climate change. In fact, scientists now believe the stress has made Kaneohe Bay’s coral more resilient to future bleaching.
Some scientists are now breeding the strongest, most resilient coral so that it can withstand the effects of climate change. They hope this new breed of coral will take hold once its taken outside the laboratory.
One way DLNR plans to strengthen Hawaii’s coral reefs is by promoting the health of native fish species. The department wants to create marine reserves that will prohibit fishing so that populations can rebound. It also aims to change fishing regulations to reduce catch limits and prevent certain types of fishing gear, like gill nets, from being used.
Officials said it’s important to address reef health now before it’s too late. Some changes, such as to fishing regulations, could be implemented immediately. Others, like creating an interconnected system of marine protected areas, will take years of study and debate.
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