Headed into the water at Kealakekua Bay? You’ll need to wear reef-safe sunscreen

The DLNR captures this image of coral bleaching off Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park on...
The DLNR captures this image of coral bleaching off Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park on Hawaii Island. (Image: DLNR)
Published: Jan. 3, 2020 at 12:25 PM HST
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KEALAKEKUA, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Sunscreens containing chemicals have now been banned for use by commercial vessels in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island.

The restrictions took effect on Jan. 1, a year before a similar statewide ban takes effect.

Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park draws up to 500 visitors a day who kayak, snorkel or swim in its waters. Many are drawn by its coral reef and the aquatic life in and around it.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has mandated that only reef-safe sunscreens can be used on commercials vessels permitted to operate in the bay.

Fair Wind Cruises is already on board.

“I think Kealakekua is a wonderful place for us to be able to see what kind of differences the ban might make,” said Mendy Dant, Fair Wind’s executive vice president.

Dant said the company has already been providing reef-safe sunscreen to its customers for the past few years.

“The chemicals in the sunscreens, they make the coral sterile,” she said. “It’s so stressed that when anything else causes the coral stress, it can’t recover. And that’s what we’ve seen.”

Marine scientists believe the ban will have a big impact in the bay, where the ocean waters doesn’t circulate as quickly.

“The water just tends to stick around for longer, and so the more people in the water every single day, the accumulation of sunscreen increases,” said Jamison Gove, a research oceanographer with NOAA who has studied reefs.

In 2018, lawmakers passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens with the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. Studies have shown that those chemicals can be toxic to reefs and marine life.

The DLNR said that even though the law only covers two chemicals, it is recommending that people use only mineral-based sunscreens -- no chemicals of any kind -- especially in the bay.

A spokesman for the department said enforcing the rule will be next to impossible, but that fortunately most of the tour operators there had been using reef safe sunscreens before the rule took effect.

Both the DLNR and Dant said an even better solution to the sunscreen problem is to use sun-protective clothing instead.

Oceanographers have also said coral in the bay has other stresses, including higher sea temperatures and pollution. But Fair Wind Cruises hopes the rules can at least reduce the stress from sunscreens in the heavily-visited area.

“Hopefully starting with Kealakekua Bay, we can get the word out and everyone can kind of jump on the bandwagon so we don’t need to wait 'til 2021,” said Dant.

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