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Kohala Center Launches Reef-Friendly Sunscreen Dispenser Program at Kahaluʻu Bay

January 14, 2021, 1:50 PM HST
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Volunteers at Kahalu’u Bay show off free sunscreen dispensers that truly offer reef safe sunscreen. PC: Cynthia Punihaole Kennedy

The havoc the coronavirus pandemic has wrought in Hawai‘i is so far-reaching and crippling that it becomes hard to quantify in totality. However, one of the silver linings is the respite it’s provided the islands’ delicate natural world.

Kahaluʻu Beach and Bay Park on Hawai‘i Island is one of the best examples of this phenomenon. Prior to state reopening to trans-Pacific travel on Oct. 15, 2020, the park received an average of 45-60 daily visitors. As soon as the pandemic was reined in enough for mainland and international flights to return to Big Island airports, that number grew to approximately 100 visitors per day. During the week before Christmas and through the New Year, the number of visitors rose to an average of 500 daily visitors.

Park caretakers said many visitors appeared to arrive with chemical sunscreens, because the state continues to allow those to be sold in stores. This development, they said, is a serious concern.

“This coral reef bay is very fragile and we need to find a way to protect it,” said Cindi Punihaole-Kennedy, Kūpuna and Director of the Kahaluʻu Bay Education Center — a project of the Kohala Center.

With the return of visitors in large numbers, which appear likely to continue to grow, the Kahaluʻu Bay Education Center/The Kohala Center, Raw Elements, and Target have partnered to launch very first Reef-Friendly Sunscreen Dispenser Program in Hawai‘i at Kahaluʻu Beach Park on Jan. 23, 2021, from 9 am to noon.

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In conjunction with this initiative, Target will be introducing Raw Elements for sale on its shelves beginning on Jan. 17 at the local Hawai‘i locations. Raw Elements provides another safe choice for the park visitor, a Kohala Center press release said.

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Punihaole-Kennedy authored the following letter to expound further:

“For many years, Kahaluʻu Bay and Beach Park on Hawai‘i Island has seen devastating declines to the health of its coral reef. Sunscreen pollutants and direct human contact with coral are the primary factors impacting the bay’s health.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary halt to tourism, resulting in substantially fewer people visiting the bay, which gave the bay’s delicate marine ecosystem a chance to heal significantly. In just a few months, we witnessed a revitalization of marine life, with limu (algae) growing, turtles feeding, coral spawning, and fish and urchins returning in abundance. But as COVID restrictions are gradually eased and visitors return to the bay in vast numbers, the bay’s vibrant ecosystem is threatened once again.

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Kahaluʻu is a Hawaiian treasure, a wahi pana, a sacred place. To save our beloved bay and Hawai‘i’s other many wahi pana, we need better management of tourism. Education and advocacy of pono behaviors and practices are essential to preserve and protect our island home. Residents and visitors alike can take a few simple steps to save our reefs:

  • Don’t touch, step on, or stand on corals.
  • Use only mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide listed as active ingredients.
  • Don’t rely on “Reef Safe” labels

Corals are living animals, please treat them with reverence and respect. Mahalo nui loa.”

Bay caretakers have been working diligently to reduce the amount of chemical sunscreens in those waters since April 2018. In November 2019, after a second analysis by Dr. Craig Downs, a dramatic reduction in oxybenzone levels can be witnessed when compared to April 2018.

“Other sunscreen chemical UV filters, including avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate, may harm human health as well as marine life,” said Dr. Downs, a toxicologist with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. “These chemicals are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and some may remain there for at least three weeks. Some may disrupt our hormones, which can effect thyroid function, development, fertility, and more.”

The FDA recognized only two remaining active sunscreen ingredients as “generally safe and effective,” the mineral UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Last January, two introduced bills were introduced to ban additional chemicals but those bills were defeated.

Contact: [email protected]; or call 808-895-1010.

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