Editor’s note: This Community Voice was one of numerous entries in our recently concluded Emerging Writers Contest.

Sixty years ago, hovering lazily above a pristine coral reef off Laie, the sun bronzing my bare shoulders, a snorkel tucked under the strap of my face mask, I had no clue that I’d see most of the ubiquitous, colorful, rotund cauliflower corals beneath me die off during my lifetime.

That reef, rich with life in the days of my youth, no longer supports many of the critters that I got to know so well by spending hours traversing, observing, or just floating meditatively above it, in those days before the Oahu population exploded, and more recently, the climate was damaged by what I now understand to be the abject, often willful carelessness of our species.

Spending years of weekends in a little beach house across the street from the still under construction Polynesian Cultural Center, I was witness to a depletion, wrought innocently enough by many of us, including islanders who moved to Laie to study at the Church College of Hawaii. Newcomers from across the Pacific naturally harvested from the ocean the same foods they had taken from equally pristine reefs around their home islands. The difference was the concentrated effort in a much smaller area, with few regulations in place, combined with the take of those who came before, and virtually no enforcement of the few rules that had been put into place.

Giant ulua aukea at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. Tasty but in danger of being overfished.

Flickr: Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument

From my perspective the numbers of papio and ulua seemed to decline first, and their diminution could be measured by our shore-casting catches of these great game fish faced with the double jeopardy of also being a popular target for spear fishermen, and very tasty on a dinner plate.

It wasn’t just my best friend Sandy and I who noticed the decline of these species from our catches, but our landlord, Mr. Miyamoto and neighbor, Mr. DeMello, who were far more serious about their shoreline fishing, and had spent far more time pursuing these two species that fought so gamely on rod and reel. Their tales of catches in the years just after the war, when our near shore waters had been thoroughly rested, and I had just been born, made it abundantly clear to them that things were changing fast in the ocean around Hawaii.

Uhu were another species that seemed to decline in the early 1960s. Colorful, robust and essential to the health of our reefs, these coral scraping algae eaters were a relatively easy target for spear fishermen, including my friend and I. However, spear fishermen were not their only nemesis. The increasing use of monofilament gill nets also snagged parrotfish, which tend to spook and dart carelessly into hopeless entanglement if the mere shadow of a lay net’s cork-line caught even the periphery of an uhu’s vision.

Seeing The Signs Now

I feel guilty now, all these decades later, but in my early years few imagined any limitation to the endless bounty of the ocean. We thought, as did most, that the ocean would continue to replenish itself, regardless of our minuscule withdrawals of its wealth.

There were occasional signs, and later clear markers, that too much could be taken, that the bounty of the Pacific Ocean around our islands, was not limitless. I was witness to inflatable rubber boats full of Marines, with scuba gear and fancy French arbalete spearguns, who not only filled their boats with food fish bound for legendary fish fries back at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station, but who also killed dozens of moray eels, spearing them and then cutting off lower jaws with their Ka-Bar knives, ostensibly to protect the public from these aggressive and ostensibly evil creatures.

My earliest Hawaiian mentors, members of the Nihipali ohana of Laie, taught that you never take more than your ohana can consume, always leaving some for later, and to replenish the larder. The wholesale slaughter of those puhi, aumakua to some Hawaiians, and especially because few consumed them, was despicable to the people of the island where I was born, and I grew to understand their sensibilities, culturally, ethically and scientifically, as I grew older. I’ve tried to take their manao to heart and tried to be part of the solution, and minimize being part of the problem.

Twice each weekend on our way to and from Laie, our family’s station wagon drove past the roadside shack in Heeia that sold cauliflower coral heads. Most were bleached white, a color we almost never encountered on the reef. Others were dyed garish colors, some even vivid fluorescent. Harvested from nearby reefs, these Pocillopora meandrina were far from endangered, but I always wondered why people would buy them when the reef was covered with them, and because the much more fragile, even lace-like Pocillopora damicornis that I collected occasionally as a gift for my mother, were far prettier.

‘The Damnable Damage’

I feel sorry for the kids of today, what they see snorkeling over a Hawaiian reef is largely dead cauliflower corals, covered in algae, slowly deteriorating. There are a few exceptional examples of these corals that can still be found, colonies that have somehow avoided harvest and overcome the warming incidences of recent years, corals sporting lovely pink, yellowish tan, purple and occasionally other colors, but the overall scene is decidedly not the same as it was in those days when I was young and foolish.

Fortunately, we have establish modest refugia for our marine life, not yet enough, not yet with any order or connectivity in mind, but a very small percentage of our prettiest reefs have been protected by marine life conservation districts, natural area reserves, fishery management areas, marine national monuments, national marine sanctuaries and other means. These marine protected areas need to be larger, selected and designed to maximize resiliency and protective of examples of all of Hawaii’s unique marine ecosystems.

Some will say it is too late, but I choose to be optimistic and to believe that we can make a difference.

While I feel sorry for those who are inheriting what my generation has failed to reverse — the damnable damage that results from unfettered carbon emissions and the proliferation of plastics, not just the inept management and overfishing locally — I can’t imagine what it will be like for the younger generation that will eventually bear those who will experience what climate change truly delivers.

We are blessed to live in the most remote chain of islands on the planet, and to be surrounded by an ocean that still nurtures numerous endemic species of fish, coral and algae, but we have an obligation to the future, an obligation to correct our errors and misjudgments, right many wrongs, confer protections to at least 30 percent of our marine environment.

Some will say it is too late, but I choose to be optimistic and to believe that we can make a difference, and know that if we don’t try, we will absolutely fail.

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About the Author

  • Rick Gaffney

    Rick Gaffney was born and raised in Hawaii and has fished recreationally, as a charter captain, and commercially, in the Hawaiian Islands and around the Pacific, for 60 years. He has served on numerous fishery advisory bodies including WESPAC, the Marine Protected Areas Federally Advisory Commission, the West Hawaii Fishery Council and the Western and Central Pacific Fishery Commission.