The staccato knock of hammers and the low buzz of band saws hardly felt like a coral restoration site, but the sounds were deceiving.

Local volunteers are being given the rare opportunity to fragment select heat-tolerant pieces of coral at Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai. It’s part of the state’s first community coral restoration event — Restore With Resilience, according to organizers.

The monthly event, which is organized by Malama Maunalua, the Coral Resilience Lab and about a dozen other nonprofits, is part of an effort to bridge the gap between researchers and community.

Kira Hughes, Program Manager of the Restore With Resilience program from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology carries a tray of coral samples collected from Maunalua Bay to be studied, propogated, and replanted back onto the reefs of Maunalua Bay. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Kira Hughes of the Restore With Resilience program from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology carries a tray of coral samples to be studied, propagated, then replanted on the reefs of Maunalua Bay. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

“We are moving to a new era in which scientists are opening the door to make research more accessible to the community,” Sarah Woo, outreach specialist at the Coral Resilience Lab, said. “We cannot do it without all hands on deck.”

Without proper permitting, it’s illegal to “take, break or damage” any stony coral, including reefs or mushroom coral, according to Hawaii’s Department of Land And Natural Resources.

The Restore With Resilience program, which held its first volunteer event on June 19, is aimed at enlisting local volunteers to help with research seeking coral that is most likely to survive in warmer temperatures.

Cathy Gewecke, a biologist with the DLNR’s division of aquatic resources, said that permits are only granted on a year-to-year basis after review and approval by a team of specialists within the same field of research. In this case, a group of coral scientists and researchers.

“We have to be able to exempt people from that rule in order to allow them to collect coral for their research purposes or for educational purposes, like, in college classrooms or to teach people about coral,” Gewecke said.

So, before putting the volunteers to work on a recent Saturday, Kira Hughes, the Coral Resilience Lab’s program manager, explained their mission: proactive management of coral in Maunalua Bay.

“There’s not a sudden urgency to get this going, but we know it’s coming because these bleaching events are going to last longer, and they’re going to be more frequent in the future — that’s just following all the climate projections.” — Kira Hughes, Coral Resilience Lab program manager.

The restoration effort comes amid growing concern about threats to coral reefs ranging from climate change to dredging, destructive fishing practices and recreational misuse.

While the state’s most damaging bleaching events were in 2014 and 2015, Hughes said they’re trying to prepare the corals for inevitably warmer waters ahead.

In the last 30 years, half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost and the islands have lost nearly 7% of their hard coral cover over the past 10 to 15 years, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

For longtime Maunalua diver Todd Fisher, life below the surface looks starkly different than what he remembers two decades ago.

“I was born and raised on this beach and we used to catch lobster knee deep in the water, but when they did all the buildings up there in the mountains all the mud came down and covered all the coral and it just died,” Fisher said. “Now it looks like a desert.”

Todd Fisher slowly wiggles a coral fragment against the diamond blade during the Restore With Resilience event Saturday.
Todd Fisher slowly wiggles a coral fragment against the diamond blade during a Restore With Resilience event. Lauren Teruya/Civil Beat/2021

Malama Maunalua’s director of habitat restoration Alex Awo echoed the same homage to the vibrant reefs and ecological diversity that once occupied the bay. But Awo said he believes community engagement and education are among the best solutions for a healthier ecosystem.

“Having the opportunity to inspire people, you really see that light and fire in their eyes, getting them excited for something that’s meaningful, impactful and that they themselves can take an active role in,” he said.

And that matches up with the goal of Restore With Resilience: bringing community together to learn how to protect the natural resources.

During their event this month, an assembly line quickly formed once a canoe filled with divers and heat resistant coral colonies arrived on shore.

Community volunteers for the Restore With Resilience non-profit organization,Tehani Cloatre (left) and Therese Howe, break apart sections of coral so the pieces can be propagated and replanted into Maunalua Bay a few months from now, in Hawaii Kai, Saturday, November 13, 2021. Restore With Resilience educates and involves all interested community members in their mission to restore coral reefs in Hawaiʻi through selective propagation of local, thermally resistant corals to enhance future reef resilience. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Tehani Cloatre, left, and Therese Howe, break apart sections of coral so the pieces can be propagated and replanted into Maunalua Bay in January. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

Volunteers wearing water shoes walked larger coral from the sea to their measuring station, notating color and size. The living rocks were then transferred to a saltwater tub where other volunteers took pick and hammer to them, producing between one and five inch fragments. The small coral was then run under a diamond blade to flatten rough sides and remove dead tissue. Finally, the finished fragments were glued onto pegs and placed in nets for planting that will occur around January of next year.

“We’re actually developing some additional tools right now to focus specifically on coral restoration projects because people are very interested in being a part of it,” Gewecke said.

The division is creating evaluational tools that will help determine if applicants are meeting the requirements and criteria to start their own community coral restoration projects and a way to evaluate the qualifications of research or restoration methods needed.

“There’s not a sudden urgency to get this going, but we know it’s coming because these bleaching events are going to last longer, and they’re going to be more frequent in the future — that’s just following all the climate projections,” Hughes said.

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