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Experts Talk About Effect of Kīlauea’s Current Eruption on Marine Life

July 26, 2018, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated February 27, 12:58 PM
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Meteorologist Malika Dudley shares how ocean creatures, such as turtles, coral, algae and fish, were impacted by the lava ocean entry along the Puna coastline of Hawai‘i Island.

Marine Scientists and University of Hawai‘i at Hilo professors Steven Colbert and Misaki Takabayashi, Sea Turtle Scientist George Balazs, Mayor Harry Kim, UH Mānoa Professor David Karl and more for shared their research, insights and thoughts on what is happening to our marine life at and around the Kīlauea lava flow.

The area of the active ocean entry, where new land now extends hundreds of acres along miles of coastline was once a unique habitat where juvenile marine creatures thrived. Today, the experts reminisce, hypothesize on what likely occurred and share their hopes for the future.

Marine Scientist & UH-Hilo Professor Steven Colbert:
“It was barren lava at the surface but then you stuck your head underwater and it was Alice in Wonderland. There were lots of springs all along the shoreline there, creating these different environments in each tide pool as the salt water and fresh water mixed.”

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Sea Turtle Scientist, George Balazs:
“Two hundred fifty individual turtles have been tagged. It was a good turtle place. It was one of the faster growing places around the Big Island probably because they sat in warmer water.”

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Marine Scientist & UH-Hilo Professor Misaki Takabayashi:
“The geomorphology of the place. Shallow, protected, the big predators couldn’t come in and wipe out your babies. All of that lent to the fact that it was a nursery for lots of species.”

When the Kapoho Bay / Waiopae Tide pools area was taken by Pele, the loss was also felt in the scientific community.

Sea Turtle Scientist George Balazs:
“I wish I had access somehow to get to what’s left at Kapoho… well, actually there’s nothing left… I’ve got to realize that. The bay is filled in.”

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Marine Scientist & UH-Hilo Professor Misaki Takabayashi:
“I was getting emails and texts from all of my students saying oh my gosh what are we going to do, they were devastated and they’d been crying all day.”

Marine Scientist Misaki Takabayashi says her students have been conducting monthly surveys on the same 48 coral heads over the last 12 years.

“A lot of impact of what we produce as humans, our waste waters, people’s cars producing some sort of leaking, the sunscreen that we wore inside of the ocean leaching out onto the reef. Very high impact, something like 70% of blue rice coral would bleach and die.”

With his students, Marine Scientist, Steven Colbert studied anchialine ponds.

“The anchialine ponds created a unique ecosystem so there are these indigenous species that are only found in these anchialine ponds.”

And then, it was gone. In early June, lava overran Kapoho Bay taking out 80 or so of the Big Island’s anchialine ponds.

“Fifteen percent of those anchialine ponds on Hawaii island, that’s a large fraction of the overall number.”

Anything living on the sea floor surely perished.

“The coral, the sea cucumbers, the crabs and they really can’t escape. In general it can be difficult to move from one tide pool to another to get away. When I was there you saw dead fish at the surface.”

You may want to avert your eyes. Just days ago, disturbing images from Ikaika Marzo at Pohoiki. The likely result of boiling waters on possible territorial or sight-attached fish. Probably brought onto shore by waves at high tide.

Mayor Harry Kim:
“The fish and the corals in the water, that was irreplaceable. I know they’re gone forever. I know fish and turtles died. I get a hard time not visualizing that because I saw them struggling in the water.”

Larger, predatory fish were more behaviorally inclined to leave.

Marine Scientist & UH-Hilo Professor Steven Colbert:
“If they start to notice there’s something bad in the area they may turn and swim away from those areas.”

Sea Turtle Scientist George Balazs:
“What happened to all those turtles? I can only speculate. I think some of them did get overrun by the lava, if they were in there in the evening and headed down sleeping. I don’t know if they could get out fast enough. They are mouth breathers and their nostrils are for pumping sea water in and out and in the process smelling things in the water. Noxious and very sensitive to uncomfortably increasing water temperature then like any other animal I would really expect quite a few of them to flee seaward. What would be surprising and what I do not think happened would be mass mortality meaning dozens and dozens of turtles. They are from the age of dinosaurs, survivors that have seen the coming and going of numerous species they acclimate and survive.”

Another issue impacting marine life are the small particles of sand, lava rock and clay floating in the water.

Marine Scientist & UH-Hilo Professor Steven Colbert:
“It blocks out the sunlight and any algae isn’t getting enough sunlight to thrive. There a lot of critters that are filter feeders. It’s difficult for them to sort out the food from the mud.”

An interesting side effect of the lava ocean entry, being studied by researcher David Karl, is an algae bloom offshore. The working theory is that Kīlauea is fertilizing the area with iron and phosphorus which encourages a special group of phytoplankton to grow. These “nitrogen fixers” are currently being studied and research is on-going. However, other research will have to come to a standstill.

Marine Scientist & UH-Hilo Professor Misaki Takabayashi:
“It was devastating it’s a complete ultimate loss, however in kind of an interesting way it felt cleansing. Waiopae was the epicenter of this growth anomaly for coral disease. This lava flow covering those places has not wiped those diseases off the face of the planet however the places that were the worst for those diseases are gone.”

With that comes an important lesson.

“We have to remember more than ever protecting other places right now is important so that they can seed the new coastline. that the place needs to be connect to other healthy reefs.”

Takabayashi believes it may take decades, but one day life will begin anew.

“Give it time. The first coral larvae would settle would settle as soon as the level substrate is good enough for life to begin. New babies will swim over and establish a new community, new ecosystem.”

Mahalo to pilot Pete Stachowicz and Paradise Helicopters for the overflight opportunity, to our experts for their insights and expertise and to our videographers, Everette Ganir and Dustin Acdal.

OTHER VIDEOS IN MALIKA DUDLEY’S “PUNA LAVA” SERIES

OVERVIEW

Part 1: What’s Happening Beneath the Sea Surface

This House Was More Than Just a Home

Kalapana-Pohoiki Lifeguard Talks About the Loss of Surf Spots / How Ocean Safety is Handling the Change

Clearwater Ohana Loses Home to Lava

Candid, Impromptu Interview with Mayor Harry Kim

Ocean Robots Collect Data From Kīlauea Flow

Puna Midwife Loses Maternity Home & Her Own House to Lava

 

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