Reef at Olowalu now a ‘hope spot’

The goal is to bring awareness, support to places Mission Blue deems “critical to the health of the ocean”

A photo of the Olowalu reef from 2013 or 2014 shows the its condition at that time. Maui diver and biologist Pauline Fiene said coral such as these have moved offshore to deeper water and can no longer be found so close to shore and at such a shallow depth at the same location. PAULINE FIENE photo

When the rains came to the sugar cane-covered slopes of Olowalu so many years ago, the soil would run down the mountains and into the ocean, coloring the water “chocolate brown,” said Pauline Fiene, a diver and biologist on Maui.

“That sediment not only smothered corals, but it became the gift that kept on giving,” said Fiene, who’s been studying Hawaiian marine life for more than 30 years. “Every time there was a little wave action, that silt was resuspended, and it reduced the amount of sunlight that the corals needed to grow. That contributed to the overall loss of coral reef over the past several decades.”

The 1,000-acre reef at Olowalu is the largest and best developed on Maui, Bernardo Vargas-Angel, a coral ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained in May. Its location at the heart of Maui Nui has made it a spawning ground that has helped populate reefs around Maui, Molokai and Lanai. But decades of runoff and recent coral bleaching events have taken their toll on the sprawling marine hub.

That’s why residents and those in the conservation community are enthusiastic about Olowalu’s newest designation as a Mission Blue Hope Spot, which was announced Thursday aboard Hokule’a. Olowalu is the first in the state to receive the title, which Mission Blue founder and oceanographer Sylvia Earle created with the hopes of bringing awareness and support to places that Mission Blue deems “critical to the health of the ocean.”

Mark Deakos, executive director and chief scientist of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research, kick-started Olowalu’s push for “hope spot” recognition.

The Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a carries crew members and visitors as it anchors in the waters of Olowalu on Thursday morning to celebrate the designation of the reef there as a “Mission Blue Hope Spot.” The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Some of the oldest coral ever dated in the state exists here at Olowalu,” Deakos said Thursday. “Over 300-year-old corals, over 430 individual manta rays have been identified here. . . . It’s a very unique place, and we’re very excited about all these groups coming together . . . to really make an effort to preserve it and make sure it doesn’t fall fate to what some of our other reefs around the island have done.”

While hotels and housing projects have sprouted up west and south of Olowalu, the area has mostly stayed undeveloped, and many residents have fought to keep it that way. In December 2015, heavy community opposition to the proposed 1,500-home Olowalu Town project led the state Land Use Commission to reject the project’s final environmental impact statement. Developers later withdrew their plans.

Last September, the state Department of Transportation halted its plan to build a 900-foot seawall near Olowalu after residents concerned about the impacts on the reef staged protests and camped out on the construction site.

But natural factors like rain runoff and bleaching can be harder to control. In the summers of 2014 and 2015, warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures caused coral bleaching throughout the Hawaiian archipelago. After the 2015 bleaching, the coral mortality rate for Maui was estimated at 20 to 40 percent, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The state marked leeward Maui as a “priority site” in its first-ever coral bleaching recovery plan released in May.

But life still abounds in the crystal blue waters off Olowalu, and there’s hope in that, Fiene said. As the owner and operator of Mike Severns Diving, Fiene was “blown away by the massiveness” of Olowalu’s reef when she started diving there in the late 1980s and called it “the most breathtaking reef I had seen in Hawaii.”

Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson (left) explores the Olowalu reef with Maui diver and biologist Pauline Fiene on Thursday morning with the Maui voyaging canoe Mo‘okiha o Pi‘ilani in the background. The 1,000-acre reef, the largest and best-developed on Maui, was designated as a Mission Blue Hope Spot, the first such designation in the state, making it “critical to the health of the ocean.” The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“The reason for the Hope Spot designation at Olowalu is that because there was so much reef to begin with — an estimated thousand acres — even though about half of it was lost, there is still a lot of reef remaining,” Fiene explained. “The coral colonies that survived the 2014-2015 bleaching events are hopefully genetically better-suited to handle the warmer water temperatures that are to come. Since they are now the colonies that are spawning the next generations, perhaps those future colonies will be somewhat better-equipped to survive warming sea temperatures.”

Tiare Lawrence, who represents the community-based hui Malama Olowalu, said that the group wants to seek funding and grants for the reef now that it’s been designated a Hope Spot.

“The best benefit (of being a Hope Spot) is it will help us get our story out there and start to build a lot of community awareness and partnerships with international organizations that are working on similar issues,” Lawrence said.

Malama Olowalu recently created a community marine management area for the reef and plans to start meeting with residents to discuss the reef’s future, Lawrence said. “At the forefront” of the group’s concerns is the realignment of Honoapiilani Highway, which would save sections of roadway that are in danger of falling into the ocean and lessen the need for seawalls.

Lawrence lives in Pukalani but has family roots in West Maui.

“The reef near the landing used to be abundant and alive, like really alive,” she said. “And now they’re dead. . . . It’s not just about the ocean. It’s about addressing the issues mauka to makai.”

Improving the mauka side to protect the reef is the focus of the Maui County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, a subdivision of DLNR. Hannah Lutgen, a conservation specialist with the program, explained how the group helps farmers and homeowners on the West Maui slopes to create practices that protect the ocean. Things like silt fences, troughs and berms, filter strips, cover cropping and lo’i kalo can help keep loose soil from running downhill.

“By filtering the water and having good conservation measures . . . we’re helping reduce sediment from reaching the ocean and helping clean the water,” Lutgen said. “That’s the goal, is to capture erosion and runoff mauka side before it reaches the ocean.”

As Hokule’a began a statewide mahalo tour Thursday, the voyaging canoe stopped by Olowalu to celebrate the new designation. Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, said that the crew had met people all around the world who were working to conserve the environment.

“But I will say . . . if this is going to be an indication of what all the other ports look like, there is no place on the earth that is moving at the rapid pace to take care of their home than Hawaii,” Thompson said. “When the world doesn’t have answers, there’s a place to look at. It’ll be Olowalu. It’ll be Honolua. It’ll be Hawaii.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


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