Rules aim to protect base of ocean ecosystem

KAHULUI – The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is seeking to tighten its rules to eliminate loopholes and enforce penalties for damage to coral reefs.

“Coral is the base of our ocean ecosystem. It’s one of the most important things out there,” said Russell Sparks, an aquatic biologist with the department’s Division of Aquatic Resources. “It takes hundreds of years to grow and can be damaged in a few careless seconds.”

The proposed rules were presented during a public meeting Thursday at Maui Waena Intermediate School. About half a dozen residents attended.

The new rules make it unlawful to “scrape, smother, poison or otherwise cause any physical or physiological harm to the living portion of a stony coral or live rock,” even if by accident. Violations may be subject to both criminal and administrative penalties.

Civil fines of up to $1,000 per square meter of coral or live rock – any rock or natural hard substrate to which marine life is visibly attached or affixed – may be collected by the department under the proposed rules. Ocean users who inadvertently break corals would be exempted if the damage were less than a half square meter.

The fines collected would be used to mitigate further damage, fund restoration projects or try to replace the lost or damaged coral, Sparks said.

“There are rules for everybody, fishermen, tour operators, anybody out there,” Sparks said. “We want all recreational boaters to think about the coral before they start throwing their anchor.”

Coral reef safety laws were originally adopted in 1998 as a fisheries management law to curb the amount of coral that was being taken from the ocean and displayed on bookshelves or sold in farmers markets, Sparks said. Over the years, the rules have been amended to increase protection for corals, but the wording of the current rules allows lawyers to find loopholes.

The department began drafting the revised rules four years ago. They aim to clarify explicitly what is and isn’t illegal, and identify the fines and penalties.

“Coral reefs are in decline around the world, and Hawaii is no exception,” said Liz Foote of the Coral Reef Alliance in an email. “West Maui alone lost a quarter of its reefs over a 13-year span. Making the rules about damaging coral less ambiguous and more stringent will hopefully serve as a deterrent and also make enforcement easier.”

But a couple of local fishermen at Thursday’s hearing were concerned that the new rules put unrealistic limitations on boaters’ abilities to anchor near the reef.

“When we drop anchor to go fish around that coral area, I don’t know how we’re going to avoid that (damaging more than a half square meter of coral),” said Basil Oshiro, president of the Maui Cooperative Fishing Association. “Our anchors, some of them (are) 6 or 7 feet long.”

He added that the water depth sometimes reaches more than 300 feet where they anchor, making it nearly impossible for boaters to see from the surface where the coral or live rock is toward the bottom. Fishermen must anchor their boats near the reefs because that is where the fish are, he said.

Sparks said he understood that “if you’re dropping anchor in 300 feet of water, it’ll be hard to miss the reef,” but he wanted all boaters to start thinking about the health of the coral reefs when they make decisions on where to drop anchor, how to remove a grounded vessel and what they’re putting in the ocean.

“Overfishing, pollution, global warming, chemistry in ocean water, all of these things are putting stress on our coral, but more and more ocean activities is direct damage,” Sparks said. “This effort is trying to minimize and reduce that direct damage that happens from careless human activities.”

When a 64-foot Pacific Whale Foundation catamaran was grounded on the shoreline near McGregor Point in September, the organization worked with DLNR as well as the Coast Guard immediately to remove the vessel without further damaging the reef, Sparks and organization officials said.

“We immediately launched our research team out there . . . photographed the whole area to see if there’s any impact or the extent, we documented the research,” foundation Executive Director Greg Kaufman said. “We were extremely fortunate. We largely missed the reef area and landed on algae-covered rock.”

The foundation is still working with the state to mitigate any long-lasting damage, but so far the nonprofit has not been assessed any fines “because we cooperated” with the authorities, and helped research and document the damage, Kaufman said.

“Whenever any boater comes in contact with a reef, they should report it immediately, full disclosure. That is step one that most people fail to do,” he said. “If you do the right thing, you’ll get proper consideration by the authorities. Stand up, do the right thing, admit there was a mistake. Covering it up and nonreporting, that’s not helpful to anyone.”

Sparks admitted that it would be impossible for the department to catch every offender, or even the majority, but that the rules are meant to “make it clear to the public that coral is one of our most valuable resources . . . and people should start paying attention.”

Oshiro, the fisherman, suggested the department work with more groups in the local community, like Aha Moku ‘O Maui, to get more input on the best ways to manage the area.

“We not objecting to what you guys trying to do. We all want the same thing, to malama our fisheries and take care of the reef, without the reef we not going to get fish,” Oshiro said toward the end of the meeting. “We don’t have the answers but working together, we might have the answers.”

Written testimony will be accepted until Dec. 22 by mail to DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources, 1151 Punchbowl St., Room 330, Honolulu 96813.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at