Legislation Aims to Address Coral Reef Ecosystem Threats

June 21, 2019, 8:36 AM HST (Updated June 21, 2019, 12:05 PM)
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In recognition of National Oceans Month, Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawai‘i) and Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawai‘i) introduced legislation on June 20, 2019, that would support practices to preserve, sustain and restore coral reef ecosystems.

The Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act of 2019 addresses threats facing our nation’s coral reef ecosystems by directing the 12 federal agencies on the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to use existing cross-agency funding to carry out a coral health prize competition. Additionally, the legislation allows federal agencies to work with private entities to both fund and administer the prize competition.

“The waters surrounding Hawai‘i are home to more than 620 square miles of coral reef and a quarter of the world’s marine life, including thousands of native species found nowhere else in the world,” Sen. Hirono said. “Hawai‘i’s coral reefs generate nearly $800 million in economic activity each year for our state. We cannot afford to sit by as the health of our oceans continues to decline. This bill encourages federal agencies as well as the private sector to come together to find innovative solutions to help our declining reefs. Collaborative partnerships such as these are desperately needed to ensure that our marine environments and the numerous services they provide will be around for future generations.”

“This no-cost bill that amends the proven Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000 to authorize federal agencies on the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to use current funds or partner with other agencies, states, tribes, local governments or private entities to offer prize competitions to incentivize research on coral reefs,” Rep. Case said. “Prize competitions that encourage public-private partnerships, such as the one that this bill proposes, have an established record of spurring innovation that can be integrated into a next-generation federal ocean management strategy. This small step could generate huge leaps forward in the preservation and protection of one of the most critical and endangered corners of our natural world.”

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“I’m proud to cosponsor the Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act to incentivize research on coral reefs, which provide environmental and economic benefits to coastal communities across our nation,” Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon said. “According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the annual value of flood risk reduction provided by U.S. coral reefs is more than 18,000 lives and $1.805 billion. In Puerto Rico, coral reefs annually protect more than 4,200 people and over $183 million worth of buildings and economic activity. This bill brings us a step closer in developing effective solutions to protect our corals, and I look forward to working with Congressman Case and Senator Hirono to achieve its passage.”

“As Ruth Gates, Sundance-award-winning Chasing Coral science adviser and former director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawai‘i, said, ‘If we do not intervene in the next 10 years, we will be discussing the demise of [coral] reefs in our lifetime.’ The time is short to save corals and humanity,” Brian Taylor, dean of the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said. “This legislation of Sen. Hirono and Rep. Case to promote innovation in coral reef research and conservation uses prize competitions to spur public-private partnerships to help save coral reef ecosystems, and we humans who depend on them. There is no time to lose in enacting this bill.”

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. A peer-reviewed study commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the total economic value of coral reefs in the main Hawaiian Islands alone to be nearly $34 billion. Healthy reefs contribute to local economies through tourism and provide shoreline protection during severe weather events by mitigating damaging wave action.

Coral reefs are currently facing a number of threats including climate change, bleaching, disease, overfishing, and pollution, among others. In recent years, reefs in and around Hawai‘i have suffered due to these threats, where reefs such as Honolua Bay in Maui faced coral cover drop from 42% to just 9% between 1994 and 2006. As highlighted in a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences on interventions to increase coral resilience, several new innovative approaches to improving coral health have been identified within the past decade, with many others on the horizon. If enacted into law, this bill could support these and other novel practices.

In addition to Sen. Hirono, the Coral Reef Sustainability Through Innovation Act of 2019 is also co-sponsored by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). There are 11 cosponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawai‘i).

The full text of the bill is available here. A one-page summary and fact sheet about the bill is available here.

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