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PODCAST: Meet the reef protectors on a mission to cultivate resilient coral

Coral reefs are so important that they’re often called the rainforests of the sea, and a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy reefs to live.
Published: Jan. 18, 2022 at 1:53 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 27, 2022 at 12:03 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Coral reefs are so important that they’re often called the rainforests of the sea, and a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy reefs to live.

Besides marine life, corals also play a crucial role for those of us on land. Especially in Hawaii — where we are surrounded by ocean — reefs provide protection from storms, erosion and rising waters.

But corals are in crisis.

As ocean temperatures rise mixed with ongoing pollution and damage from humans, reefs are dying.

That’s why Malama Maunalua, an organization based in east Oahu, is partnering with other groups to cultivate resilient coral in Maunalua Bay — which roughly spans from Diamond Head to Portlock.

Executive Director Doug Harper says the program is called “Restore with Resilience.”

Harper sat down with HNN to describe the program for the first episode of “Repairing Earth,” a new limited series aimed at showcasing the people who are fighting climate change in our own backyard.

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Harper’s team along with Kuleana Coral Restoration, NOAA, DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources, and Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are all working to identify coral that can withstand warming temperatures. They do this by putting coral fragments under stress testing.

The fragments are placed in a tank and the water temperature is slowly increased to emulate rising ocean temperatures. Through this process, scientists can see which coral bleach, and which don’t.

The fragments that don’t turn white and survive in the lab are then replanted in the bay to grow coral colonies that are more resilient to warming temperatures. Harper explained that because climate change isn’t something that can be fixed anytime soon, projects like these are important.

Coral fragments are placed in a tank and the temperature of the water is slowly risen to...
Coral fragments are placed in a tank and the temperature of the water is slowly risen to emulate rising ocean temperatures.(Malama Maunalua)

“Restore with resilience, for example, is such a great project because it’s allowing for an adaptation to combat what we’re expecting to see and allow the reefs to survive and live, even though conditions are going to be such that they would probably have killed a large part of the reef,” he said.

So far, the state reports that up to 50% of Hawaii’s coral reefs have already died in some locations and the problem continues to be compounded as humans fuel climate change.

Scientists say 90% of heat is absorbed by the world’s oceans, meaning that a change in temperature — even by only 2 degrees — can be devastating to corals.

Warmer waters increase stress on coral, causing it to lose algae that lives in its tissue, this leads to coral losing its color, and turning white.

While these bleached corals aren’t dead, scientists warn that they become more susceptible to dying.

Furthermore, one recent study concluded coral reefs could become extinct within 30 to 50 years if steps aren’t taken to protect them.

“Climate change is daunting I mean, it is a massive, massive issue, and it is incredibly dire in what the projections are stating but showing people what they can do to really help fight climate change on a local level is important because it gives people hope,” Harper said.

Since the nonprofit was founded in 2006, Malama Maunalua and its many volunteers have been able...
Since the nonprofit was founded in 2006, Malama Maunalua and its many volunteers have been able to remove millions of pounds of invasive algae from the bay.(Malama Maunalua)

Unlike most environmental projects that usually only involve scientists and academia, part of Malama Maunalua’s mission is to involve the community.

Since the nonprofit was founded in 2006, their team along with hundreds of volunteers have removed roughly 4 million pounds of invasive algae from Maunalua Bay.

And every day, their project to make the reefs just a little bit more resilient against climate change is paying off.

“While this is a global issue that’s going to require governments and industries from around the world, there are things we can do literally right here, literally right out there, that will have an impact,” Harper said.

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