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Maui’s Coral Reefs: 7 Ways to Help

Maui coral reef in clear water at the Airport Beach dive site.

Coral Reefs Need You

It is no secret that coral reefs are vanishing at an alarming rate. Worldwide coral reefs only cover 0.015 percent of the ocean floor. That is roughly the size of France! Yet, despite claiming this minuscule swath of seafloor, coral reefs support an amazing 25 percent of all marine life in the ocean.

Imagine 2 billion people relying on the landmass of France for survival! Indeed, coral reefs provide critical economic resources, and food for animals. Coral reefs also protect coastlines from catastrophic weather events!

There are various predictions for when we will see the final collapse of coral reefs worldwide. National Geographic predicts most coral reefs will collapse by the year 2100 and warns this demise may even happen earlier if carbon emissions do not massively reduce in the short term. With rising ocean temperatures due to climate change, sea-level rise, and the snail’s pace of geopolitics, it is up to dedicated individuals to preserve what remains of these rainforests of the sea.

Current Health of Maui’s Corals

For the sake of scope, let’s focus on the current state of Maui’s coral reefs. Then, we will highlight conservation efforts for the coral reef ecosystem and what we can do as individuals to combat our reefs’ rapid changes. According to ancient Hawaiian lore, the history of all life evolved from the coral polyp. Tiny coral polyps are the base organisms of an entire coral reef system, meaning Hawaiians have always recognized how vital corals are to the health of life on the planet.

Today, Hawaiian coral reefs are subject to a variety of stressors. In particular, coral reefs in Lahaina, Maui are declining due to many significant events: bleaching from rising ocean temperatures, sedimentation from land and coastline development, algae overgrowth from agricultural and waste runoff, overfishing, and massive tourism. As a result, the Department of Land and Natural Resources estimates that Maui lost a quarter of its coral reefs between 1999 and 2006.

Popular Maui diving sites such as Airport Beach in Kaanapali saw a 33% decrease in coral coverage from 1995 to 2012. Likewise, coral in West Maui’s famous Honolua Bay dropped a jarring 76 percent between 1995 and 2012.

Maalaea Bay in central Maui was the first example of a total coral reef collapse. The bay transformed from a healthy, diverse coral reef ecosystem to a degraded underwater desert in just a few decades. Fast forward ten years, and we now see more coral reefs decline.

What will it take to save this valuable resource with a growing island population? In 2002, coastal Hawaiian coral reefs were valued at almost $10 billion, with an average annual total of $364 million (Cesar and Beukering, 2004). This outdated amount is undoubtedly much higher now, particularly for Maui! Almost 85 percent of this annual $364 million is attributed to tourism. But when the reefs go away, so will all fishing and surfing activities. The loss of revenue on this scale will be catastrophic for the Maui economy, not to mention the permanent damage to the best Maui surf spots.

Ocean Conservation in Hawaii

The prognosis for Hawaii and the rest of the world seems bleak; however, people are fighting against the human impact on the marine environment.

  • After the coral bleaching events of 2014 and 2015, four conservation agencies in Hawaii and the mainland created a network of permanent, no-take, marine-protected areas in Hawaii. They also helped fund herbivore fishery management. We can combat algae overgrowth by limiting the number of herbivores removed from shallow reefs, such as parrotfish. Herbivores consume algae and keep it clean from excessive growth. However, too many algae inhibit coral reproduction, especially after bleaching events.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently awarded over $1.3 million to the Joint Institute for Marine Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, to support the ongoing research of critical marine species in the Pacific Ocean.
  • The Maui County Council is considering a bill to ban the sale of sunscreens containing Oxybenzone. According to the Hawaiian Department of Health, compelling studies by local and national coral experts have shown potential increased damage to corals and a higher susceptibility to bleaching when elevated levels of this chemical exist in the environment. (see article) (This bill was passed and the law was effective starting January 2021)
  • A long-time business owner of Snorkel Bobs on Maui, Robert Wintner, formed a political action committee called REEFPAC. This SuperPAC works to replace corruption and weakness in the Reef State Policy management. REEFPAC is also pushing to end fish removal from the Hawaiian Islands for the aquarium trade.
  • Our Maui dive service advocates using reef-safe sunscreen (free of Oxybenzone) that is not harmful to coastal Hawaiian waters. In addition, we donate money and time to reef conservation organizations such as Coral Reef Alliance, Malama Maui Nui, Sea Shepherd, and The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

7 Ways You Can Help Coral Reefs?

As a terrestrial species, it is easy for us humans to disconnect from the ocean environment and forget how necessary it is to our existence on this planet. But you do not have to live near the ocean to protect it! If the collapse of coral reefs scares you, here is how you, as an individual, can help:

1. Educate yourself about the effects of climate change on coral reefs

An excellent visual way to do this is by watching the powerful Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, downloading their social media toolbox, and sharing it with everyone you can.

2. Limit your consumption of PLASTIC, FISH, and MEAT

You can find more information on this topic on the Eat for the Planet podcast in an interview with Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson.

3. Host beach cleanups if you live by the ocean

Involvement in your local community is a no-brainer!

4. Donate to foundations for coral research, action, and legislation

Follow these foundations on social media, and research what they stand for. Unfortunately, some promote ocean conservation yet have seafood recipes on their websites!

Reputable Foundations Include:

Surfrider Foundation
Coral Reef Alliance
Mission Blue
Project AWARE Foundation
Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation

5. Vote with your money

Don’t want to donate your hard-earned dough to science and conservation efforts. No problem! You can buy products that support sustainable oceans.

Examples include:

Waterlust – “A purpose-driven brand that creates media inspiration and sustainable products to support marine science research and education.”
Manakai Swimwear – Eco-conscious swimwear made from repurposed nylon and discarded fishing nets.
Norton Point – Started in 2016, this eyewear company is the world’s first line of sunglasses made from post-consumer ocean plastics. They remove one pound of ocean debris for every product purchased and donate proceeds from sales to the Ocean Conservancy.
Raw Love Sunscreen – Maui-made, reef-friendly, 100 percent natural, 35 SPF. Apply often!

6. Stay up to date with legislation

Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and three House Representatives introduced the bipartisan Shark Fin Elimination Act of 2017. Call your local Senator and Representatives in favor of passing future legislation like this.

7. Volunteer your time, participate in citizen science

Scuba divers clean up Maui coral reefs at Mala Wharf in Lahaina.

Citizen science is rapidly gaining traction as a method for everyday people like you and me to contribute to marine scientific research. Scuba divers, snorkelers, and water enthusiasts are encouraged to record and report unhealthy coral sitings such as bleaching, algae overgrowth, and disease.

Citizen Science Projects Include:

Earthdive – Earthdive is a revolutionary concept in citizen scienceĀ and a global research project for millions of recreational scuba divers, snorkelers, and others who can help preserve our oceans’ health and diversity.
Project AWARE – Focusing on critical issues, Project AWARE empowers thousands of divers in more than 182 countries to work together for a clean, healthy, and abundant ocean planet.
ReefQuestFounded by Dylan Vecchione at 18 years old. ReefQuest is a nonprofit project that shows kids how to become marine environmental stewards with sufficient education and tools. ReefQuest truly fosters marine ecological stewardship through citizen science.

Final Thought

The coral reefs surrounding Maui make a home for our favorite ocean animals and should have strict protections. If you found any of this information enlightening or helpful, please SHARE our blog, talk about helping corals with friends, call your mom to tell her how much you want to save coral reefs, be creative, and put your passion into action!

One person can make a difference, and everyone should try. – JFK