Coral scientists, biologists and managers from throughout the nation who are in Hawai‘i for the 45th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting got up close and personal Wednesday, Aug. 31, with coral colonies in waters of the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay.
The 80 people on the Fair Wind Cruise snorkel tour were greeted by personnel from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, who shared the challenges coral ecosystems face at Kealakekua and throughout Hawai‘i. They were able to personally observe the health of the coral colonies in the bay, which were hard hit by global coral bleaching events in 2014, 2015 and 2019.
“Since the bleaching events, we’re seeing corals starting to disintegrate through bio-erosion,” Chris Teague, Division of Aquatic Resources aquatic biologist for West Hawai‘i told the group, according to a press release. “You get urchins eating all the limu (algae) and the corals are shrinking into little mushroom shaped balls. Once they get too small and a big wave comes through, it knocks everything off and completely destroys the coral.”
To the untrained eye, coral reefs in the bay look relatively healthy, with a lot of colorful tropical fish in the area. However, aquatic biologists estimate an average 50% decline in coral cover in waters throughout all of West Hawai‘i. Bleaching is caused by rising sea temperatures because of global climate change.
Teague and Julia Rose from The Nature Conservancy also discussed with the group the Community Action Plan, a process underway to address coral health and sustainability at Kealakekua Bay.
“The plan is considering three pillars: community, environment and heritage,” Rose explained to the group, according to the press release. “We’re trying to work with everyone who is part of the greater Kealakekua Bay community.”
The 45th U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting brings top people engaged in coral conservation together to share best practices and ideas. This is the third time Hawai‘i has hosted the task force meeting.
“It’s really important for Hawai‘i to work with the other within the U.S. that have coral, so we can all collectively work together to develop strategies to make sure corals are around for the next generations and beyond,” Brian Neilson, Division of Aquatic Resources administrator, said in the press release. “Together we’re a stronger voice and we can learn from one another.”
Neilson expects coral restoration and protection to get significant boosts from current and proposed federal grants and funding mechanisms.
The task force will host its business meeting today (Thursday, Sept. 1), with a day-long series of presentations that are open to the public at the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa.