WAILUKU - A preliminary report released by two federal agencies confirmed that when the state accidentally dropped 125, 1.3-ton concrete slabs onto a swath of coral reef last year, it damaged a living habitat for myriad fish and other aquatic life-forms.
The decades-old Keawakapu artificial reef is located in 60 to 120 feet of water about a half mile out from the border of Kihei and Wailea. On Dec. 2, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources was increasing the size of the South Maui reef by dropping 1,400 slabs onto what experts apparently thought was sand and areas of algae, according to a preliminary report issued last week by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
What exactly the state should do to rectify the situation, if anything, remains undetermined. The report also did not spell out how much the three solutions presented would cost or who should foot the bill. But the agencies do say that the state should plan to restore the damaged coral.
An underwater photo shows reef damage off Keawakapu that occurred during a state reef-enhancement project on Dec. 2.
The agencies' "Keawakapu Preliminary Injury Assessment," issued March 16, also did not delve into uncovering how the accident occurred or who is responsible.
More investigation is required to determine a variety of issues, such as the damage done to the underwater species and measuring the actual size of the live reef, according to the report.
The slabs hit live coral while the state's contractor, American Marine Corp., placed 1,400 of the concrete "modules" in a 5-acre area within the 52-acre Keawakapu artificial reef. The report did not say if state employees were onboard overseeing the operation.
The Keawakapu reef is made up of 150 cars, a sunken ship, 35 other concrete slabs and thousands of tires. The slabs that didn't hit the live coral landed safely on the sand or patches of algae, according to the report.
The report stated that because of the complexity of the habitat and location of the slabs, more study would be needed to determine the amount of damage done to live coral.
The reef-building technique of dropping slabs in coastal areas is used in regions across the United States to promote the growth of new live coral reef habitats, which spring up on their own on the man-made surfaces.
The state established the Keawakapu reef in 1962, and the project in December was the first addition to the artificial reef since 1990, according to the report.
Doing nothing to fix the problem might be the safest bet, since removing the slabs could result in further damage to the reef, the authors wrote.
However, the report also suggests conducting an emergency restoration project as well as a more thorough assessment of the damage and undergoing planning to bring back the lost underwater habitat.
The 17-page Keawakapu Preliminary Injury Assessment, which includes photos and maps, can be viewed online at www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/pdf/keawakapu.pdf.
NOAA and Fish & Wildlife Service biologists independently conducted 14 survey dives over three days in early January. The surveys did not involve state aquatics officials to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Using global positioning systems and acoustic equipment, the biologists mapped, marked and measured the area and used digital photography to record the "reef injury" at the site, according to the report.
Some of the observations and recommendations from the report include:
* Coral cover in Keawakapu overall was at 50 percent or higher.
* Most of the concrete slabs were in a Z shape and 8 feet long and 4 feet wide.
* Some of the slabs hit the coral hard enough to crack both the coral and the concrete.
* The divers saw a number of rare aquatic species, including black-lipped pear oysters, which are protected, and lots of fish.
* The state might consider no action because the risk of the slabs moving due to waves is low, and the coral may rejuvenate on its own. It's also, obviously, the cheapest option.
* The state could use inflatable lift bags or barge-mounted cranes to remove all the slabs that landed on the reefs. This would have the most positive effect on the health of the coral. However, such an operation could put workers' lives at risk and possibly wind up further damaging the reef. It would also be the most expensive option.
* Picking and choosing which slabs to remove would help the damaged coral recuperate (even the shade caused by misplaced hunks of concrete can kill coral), and it would be safer and less expensive than full removal.
Both NOAA and the Fish & Wildlife Service federal offered to help the state continue to deal with the problem.
Officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and American Marine Corp. could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. But DLNR Chairwoman Laura Thielen has said that once the scope of the damage is known, "we will take immediate action to restore the live coral to the extent possible."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at chamilton @mauinews.com.