Isle coral reef experts seek to be included in conservation policies

KAANAPALI – Coral reef experts and advocates from Maui and statewide asked government representatives to include the resident community when it comes to policy and decision-making regarding conservation efforts during the 32nd biannual U.S. Coral Task Force meeting at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa in Kaanapali on Thursday.

“No one is better invested in a place than the community that lives there, so to exclude geographic and genealogical communities from efforts of management . . . we’re excluding a very valuable resource base. They’re invested for generations,” University of Hawaii Sea Grant Extension agent Pelika Bertelmann said during a panel discussion on community leadership in marine management.

Bertelmann advocated for more holistic approaches to conservation efforts that stem from the community that depends directly on those resources.

“A lot of us work in communities that we don’t live in and are not from,” Bertelmann said. “If you can’t understand what fish means to a family, you cannot, in my opinion, make the best choices for that user.”

She added that communities, especially in Hawaii, are diverse not only socially but also environmentally, and management practices should be tailored to fit each individual community and based on what works best for the community.

For Ekolu Lindsey, the son of renowned conservationist Ed Lindsey and president of Maui Cultural Lands, the health of the coral reefs is not only an environmental issue, but a cultural one as well.

“I come from a time where the culture was almost lost, my grandfather was not allowed to speak Hawaiian. . . . I grew up in a western world where monetary goods and cheeseburgers were very important in life,” Lindsey said. “As we lose our taste for resources, these resources are no longer important for generations. There’s so much disconnect, and all of that is associated with the health of the coral.”

Lindsey, who spoke on behalf of the Maui Nui Makai Network, said it was imperative that current and future generations know how to “malama the resources” – to not only use them, but learn how to use them properly.

Other nonprofit conservation groups urged state and federal officials to involve local communities in conservation and management efforts.

“The uniqueness of this location and culture that’s here, it’s worked so well for so long in ways that we’re still rediscovering and reintegrating into the culture today,” said Maui Nui Marine Resource Council coordinator Tegan Hammond. “The community-managed network is really important . . . and a successful way of managing resources.”

The discussion comes at a time when agencies around the world are searching for ways to preserve and protect coral reefs in the face of global warming and ocean acidification.

“Ocean acidification is a major, if not the major, threat to the existence of coral reefs,” John McCarroll, Pacific Islands Office manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said at the meeting. He cited a 2009 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that measured carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 385 parts per million. Today, that number has reached about 400 parts per million, McCarroll said. If atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue to increase at the same rate, coral reefs may be greatly eroded by 2030 or 2040, and completely wiped out of existence by the end of the century, he said.

To curb the effects of ocean acidification and climate change, the federal agencies that comprise the U.S. Task Force are focusing on curbing land-based sources of pollution, partnering with place-based groups and spreading more education and outreach.

Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui pledged his and the state’s commitment to finding solutions and holistic approaches to natural resource stewardship.

“Poor land management practices and damage caused by invasive species pollutes our water and continues to kill our coral,” Tsutsui said in his keynote address Thursday. “And now we face global changes in our climate and ocean that will bring serious challenges that we are only beginning to understand. But we have the power to reverse the damage that we have done and leave a better and brighter future.”

But finding those solutions may require a bit more work. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that will satisfy all coral reefs or all communities, panelists said, and governmental and regulatory agencies should engage their local communities to come up with a management plan tailored to the needs of their particular community and resource.

“In Hawaii, we’ve seen that what may work for one island or one region of an island doesn’t mean it’s going to work throughout the Hawaiian Islands,” Maui County Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons said after the meeting. “So for an agency to present blanket rules and regulations is not the way to go. (State Department of Land and Natural Resources) Chair William Aila has engaged the community-marine managed areas . . . and I’m convinced we have some great people doing community-managed areas.”

Community fisheries enforcement units, usually made up of volunteers, work with the state department’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement at a number of areas in the county, including Kahului Harbor and on Molokai.

U.S. Coral Task Force Co-Chairwoman Eileen Sobeck, an assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, asked panelists to identify areas where community management has been successful, and areas that may need more help from state or federal agencies.

“We’re really trying to listen to the community first instead of trampling in there with our federal ignorance,” she said.

Thursday’s meeting was part of a six-day conference hosted by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the West Maui Ridge 2 Reef Initiative. The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force is comprised of 15 members that represent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and delegates from American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The U.S Coral Reef Task Force was established in 1998 by presidential executive order to lead U.S. efforts to preserve and protect coral reef ecosystems. It meets biannually, once each year in Washington, D.C., and once at a location that alternates between seven U.S. coral reef jurisdictions.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.