Going deep

Robin Newbold is a protector of reefs

Robin Newbold holds a photo of herself swimming in the watery world she loves. Newbold is the executive director of Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, a nonprofit that spearheads and supports clean water/coral reef restoration projects. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For as long as she can remember, Robin Newbold has been enamored with the sea.

As a kid growing up in New Jersey, she spent her summers at the beach. There, she became keenly interested in the creatures that lived on the shoreline — from the tiny critters that skittered across the sand to the barnacles that clung to the pier pilings.

And her childhood fascination was not a passing phase.

Newbold’s passion for the ocean and its inhabitants led her to pursue a degree in environmental science from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, followed by graduate degrees in biology and education from the University of California, Irvine. She went on to teach marine biology at San Clemente High School and, later, Saddleback College. Newbold cheerfully admits that she would bring her work home: For a decade, she lived aboard a 52-foot boat docked at Dana Point Harbor. Her buoyant residence doubled as a research vessel; on weekends, she’d set sail and explore California’s underwater kelp forests.

While on a teaching sabbatical, Newbold took part in a study of Maui’s coral reefs and fish populations. She participated in other marine research projects in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and throughout the Central Pacific, but says Maui’s reefs were always on her mind. So much, in fact, that she moved to Maui, where she observed an alarming trend: With each passing year, there were significantly fewer fish on the reefs — and the reefs themselves were in a state of decline.

In 2007, she teamed up with the late Uncle Ed Lindsey and created the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council (MNMRC) to address the declining coral reefs and waning reef fish populations. Newbold and Lindsey were aware of the myriad threats to Maui’s reefs, including pollution-bearing runoff, overfishing and outdated wastewater systems. Through partnerships and community involvement, Newbold said, “We knew we could do something to reverse the trend.”

So, the duo formed an all-volunteer council composed of members from different walks of life — fishers, scientists, educators, cultural practitioners, marine tourism representatives, and county, state and federal officials. The council’s goals were (and still are) threefold: protect coral reefs, promote clean ocean water and restore native fish.

Before his death in 2009, Lindsey insisted Newbold lead the council — and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Newbold honored Lindsey’s request; she has chaired the council (now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization) ever since.

Under Newbold’s direction, the MNMRC has covered a lot of ground. Among other things, it established the Maui Coral Reef Recovery Team; recruited renowned scientists to write a first-of-its-kind Maui Coral Reef Recovery Plan; created Community Managed Makai Areas (CMMAs) so residents could collaboratively supervise marine resources; and launched the Hui O Ka Wai Ola (“Association of The Living Waters”) ocean water quality testing program in partnership with The Nature Conservancy and West Maui Ridge to Reef (volunteers collect samples at 39 sites in South and West Maui every two to three weeks). Most recently, the MNMRC kicked off a pilot project to determine if oysters could improve water quality in Maalaea Small Boat Harbor.

And that’s only a fraction of what the council has done. Through its many community-based programs and projects, it is making considerable headway.

The same can be said for Newbold. Since 2007, she has spent countless hours working on field projects, convening and facilitating meetings, testifying before lawmakers, coordinating volunteers, writing grant proposals and reports and following through on deliverables. And she’s done all of it pro bono.

“I do it for the reefs — because they do so much for us,” she said.

Coral reefs are more than ocean eye candy. These highly diverse ecosystems are home to a quarter of all marine life, provide food to millions of humans and protect coastal communities from natural disasters.

And they are in grave danger.

Apart from the impacts of land-based sources of pollution, global warming has increased the frequency of underwater heat waves, which trigger mass bleaching events and turn once-colorful corals ghostly white. An international climate report issued in October warned that the world’s coral reefs could decline by 70 to 90 percent by the year 2100 if global temperatures continue to rise.

It’s a bleak outlook, but Newbold says there’s still hope. “The reefs are in peril, and we could lose them . . . but not if we start doing what we can to keep them as healthy as possible.”

That’s why Newbold will continue to bring the mission of the MNMRC to the forefront — and continue to bring as many people as she can to the table.

“If we have everyone working together, we can turn things around,” she said. “I think we can do it.”

To learn more about the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council or to inquire about donor or volunteer opportunities, visit www.mauireefs.org. All residents are invited to attend the council’s meetings on the first Wednesday of the month from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Pacific Whale Foundation Discovery Center classrooms at the Ma’alaea Harbor Shops.

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