Ocean lovers can spy on parrotfish, monitor water quality and participate in other scientific research through a program that aims to enlist the community to help protect a West Maui reef.
Kaanapali Makai Watch harnesses volunteers to conduct scientific surveys at the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area, an offshore zone that runs from Hanaka'o'o Beach to Honokowai Beach Park. Plant-eating fish and urchins are protected in the area as part of an effort to stop algae growth from choking the reef.
Volunteers with the program also can assist with education and enforcement in the area.
Volunteers Kolea Schonwalter (front) and John Seebart collect data on algal-eating fish off West Maui as part of the Kaanapali Makai Watch initiative. The program tracks the role of “grazing” fish in controlling the spread of algae on reefs in the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area.
DARLA WHITE photo
"This reef is in precipitous decline," said Darla White of the state Division of Aquatic Resources. "We've seen a 50-percent decline in coral cover over the past 15 years, which is fast. The reef needs help, it needs help now, but we think it's not too far gone to receive a benefit from a strategy like this."
In the protected area, it's illegal to catch rudderfish (nenue), parrotfish (uhu) or surgeonfish (kala) and sea urchins.
"Everything else, within the regular rules for size and season, is up for grabs," said
Liz Foote of Coral Reef Alliance, a coordinator of Kaanapali Makai Watch.
Fish feeding also is prohibited in the zone.
"If people feed the fish, the fish will be full, and they won't eat the algae," White said.
White, who helps organize volunteers for the program, said the state hopes to gather data that will show how effective the management plan has been in protecting and restoring the reef.
That's one way members of the public can help. Volunteers can collect data for a number of surveys prepared by researchers studying the area, and report the information they gather through the program's website. People can do the surveys by snorkeling or scuba diving, and they participate on their own time. Volunteers for underwater surveys should be strong swimmers, but there are also opportunities for surveys done on land.
"The surveys are relatively easy, they're a lot of fun, and they're contributing to the larger understanding of how these systems work," White said.
In one survey, volunteers follow and observe a single fish as it "grazes" on algae in the area. They record information on the fish species, size and behavior, take note of what kind of algae it is eating, and count its "bites per minute."
That's important information to researchers trying to figure out which fish species are most effective at keeping algae under control, White said.
Past studies have indicated that size matters, at least when it comes to parrotfish. Bigger fish have bigger beaks, which means they can take bigger bites of algae. And those bites add up.
"The larger parrotfish can scrape up to 40 times more surface area of algae as the small ones," White said.
Volunteers also watch schools of smaller grazing fish that traverse the reef "like a lawnmower," she said.
Studies in other parts of the world have found that grazing schools tend to be significantly larger in areas where those species are protected from fishing, she said.
Divers already have observed school size increasing at Kahekili since the area was protected a little over a year ago, she said. Previously, the largest school seen in the area was around 100 fish. But one volunteer recently spotted a school of around 300 juvenile parrotfish.
"They're very, very important for controlling algal growth on the reef," White said.
Other surveys cover fish behavior and water quality, which can also involve data gathered on land.
In a healthy reef, coral and algae exist in balance with each other, White said. But in areas where pollution from land acts as a "fertilizer," and the population of algal-eating fish is in decline, algal growth can get out of control. The latter situation results in the loss of the healthy coral that provides habitat for reef fish and animals, she said.
"Especially when you have the threat, as we do in Hawaii, of invasive algae, it becomes even worse," Foote said.
She said the idea of establishing an area where plant-eating fish would be singled out for protection - while other species would still be available for fishing - was a "really innovative" way to address the problem.
But the species-specific rules also make the management plan "difficult to understand and enforce," she said.
Some ocean users may not be aware of what it means for a fish to be an "herbivore," and most fishers are more used to thinking about which fish are good to eat than about what the fish themselves are eating. That's one reason why Kaanapali Makai Watch has also conducted workshops and informational sessions on the beach to help people understand the rules and which species of fish are affected.
"It takes a little bit of education to know which fish eat algae and which ones don't," White said. "The pole fisherman is probably not going to catch an herbivore, but spear fishermen would probably have to know the difference."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE
Upcoming Kaanapali Makai Watch events include:
* Reef survey from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday at Kahekili Beach Park. Coordinators will be on hand to train new volunteers.
* Kaanapali Makai Watch "Action Team" workshop, 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. New project ideas will be discussed.
* Fish-sizing practice at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Kahekili Beach Park. Participants can use laminated cards underwater to practice estimating the size of different fish.
* Various surveys from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Kahekili Beach Park. In addition to underwater surveys, volunteers will conduct verbal surveys of beachgoers about their awareness of the area's rules and issues.