Coral nursery under construction in Kona for program to save West Hawai‘i’s reefs
Environmental scientist Greg Asner was conducting coral surveys in West Hawai‘i during the 2019 heat wave when he found an illegal mooring weighted down by five 5-gallon buckets filled with cement and chained together. The makeshift weight system was “steamrolling” the coral on the sea floor.
Asner visited the site again this week. The coral had not recovered.
“It’s pulverized,” said Asner, who has dedicated years of research to the health of coral around Hawai‘i Island. “That kind of thing is disheartening and solvable.”
For 120 miles along the West Hawaiʻi coastline, from ‘Upolu Point to South Point, fragments of coral large and small are broken every day by big winter swells, rising ocean temperatures, illegal anchor drops, and legal and illegal moorings. The dislodged pieces of coral are left for dead.
Without healthy coral reefs, Asner said there will be fewer fish and less coastline protection from the ocean swells. But there is hope to change the fate of corals — and save the state’s largest continuous reef, which is longer than the perimeter of Kaua‘i.
Arizona State University, the state Division of Aquatic Resources, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and community partners are creating Ākoʻakoʻa, a $25 million program with the mission to preserve and restore West Hawai‘i’s coral reefs.
The program includes the construction of a coral nursery, which is underway at Kona’s Hawai‘i Ocean Science and Technology Park and is expected to be completed in the fall. According to NOAA, the facility will be the first land-based coral nursery facility on Hawai‘i Island.
Several tanks, or raceways, are being built to hold rescued coral. The goal is to build 72 raceways, with the potential to house up to 300,000 corals at a time.
Through the program, broken corals will be rescued, taken to the nursery to recover and grow, and returned back to the same place in the ocean when they are strong enough to survive.
“It’s like pulling a monk seal out and bringing it to the mammal hospital,” said Asner, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Sciences. “It’s an animal. It just looks a lot different than a monk seal.”
NOAA said two geographic focus areas in West Hawai‘i have been identified for this process: Kaʻūpūlehu and Kealakekua. Additional sites will be identified to meet other coral restoration goals and meet the needs of local communities and stakeholders.
Asner didn’t say where those buckets of cement were found. But it’s not an isolated problem. He’s seen anchor damage and illegal moorings everywhere along Hawai‘i Island’s west coast, although it’s most common in bays such as Kīholo, Kailua, Kealakekua, Hōnaunau, Okoe and Kāpua.
The Ākoʻakoʻa program is decades in the making. Biologists have spent years doing diagnostics, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the reefs. One known problem is corals turning white, known as “bleaching.” They get lesions associated with disease or are smothered by algae.
The nursery will address a variety of components that will help rescue the large variety of corals in Hawaiʻi waters. There are about 70 species, with lobe coral, cauliflower coral, red rice coral, finger coral, false brain coral, Porkchop coral and plate coral among the most common.
The nursery will be able to control the quality of seawater used in the tanks, the temperature of the water, and how much light the corals get.
“Everything is to return to the reef, minus the subset that are so sick or so temperature sensitive that they shouldn’t go back,” Asner said.
The seawater is being piped from the park with above-ground and below-ground pipes to filtration systems that will then fill the coral tanks. Asner said there will be a few Matson-like containers at the nursery that will help in the care of the coral.
Two containers will hold filtration systems that will filter clean seawater to the tanks “because you don’t want to make the coral sick,” Asner said. The water also will go through a UV and ozone filter.
The middle container will be a workshop where those working in the program will perform micro fragmentation. Breaking up pieces of coral will allow them to grow and clone themselves.
“That’s how you can start to catch up,” Asner said.
Brian Neilson, head of the Division of Aquatic Resources, said ʻĀkoʻakoʻa, is a visionary program that can set a powerful path forward for the future.
“Restoring and enhancing our coral reefs takes a fusion of stewardship, management and high-tech science,” he said. “ʻĀkoʻakoʻa will be a major example of this blended process for West Hawaiʻi. We are pleased to partner with ASU’s education and research programs in developing and implementing restoration approaches that will benefit communities along the West Hawaiʻi coastline.”
With the heat waves that have already happened, Asner said some corals are showing resiliency, making them the future stock of the islands.
“We’re trying to connect people to that process so they feel like there’s hope,” he said.
The program was fittingly named ʻĀkoʻakoʻa, which has two meanings: to assemble and coral.
Asner said the program wouldn’t be happening without full collaboration from the Hawai‘i Island community.
“Coral reefs are integral to the identity of Hawaiian culture and Hawaiians,” Asner said. “It’s the bedrock of cultural identity.”
Because of its cultural significance, it was important for Asner to include cultural leaders as the program moves forward to bring communities together to turn the tide for coral.
Cindi Punihaole, who was born and raised in Kona and is with the Hawaiʻi-based Kohala Center, said her elders stressed the importance of the relationship between the uplands and the sea, and that for everything in the ocean, there is a partner on the land.
“The land partner is to protect its ocean partner,” she said. “We are taught to ‘mālama i ka ʻāina’ (care for and respect the land).
The nonprofit Kohala Center focuses on research, education and stewardship for healthier ecosystems.
“When the land is healthy and clean, water flows to the shores, then our corals and fish will flourish,” she said. “We strive for a world of balance and righteousness.”
Jeana Kelekolio is a member of Hui ‘Ohana O Hōnaunau, an organization that protects and educates the public about how to take care of the South Kona bay.
Kelekolio’s family has lived in Hōnaunau for 10 generations.
“We are an ‘ohana of fishermen,” she said. “We were raised to protect our kai (ocean) and the life it gives us for our lives.”
From what she knows of the coral restoration program so far, she supports it and likes the idea of replanting coral because “how are we going to get it back?”
“I’m not fully understanding of how it all works,” Kelekolio said. “It’s the only thing on the platter right now and it sounds great, but we need to know the full extent of it. We want to be at the table every step of the way.”