Experts: Matson molasses spill caused significant coral reef damage

Experts: Matson molasses spill caused significant coral reef damage
Published: Sep. 13, 2013 at 10:43 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 14, 2013 at 12:23 AM HST
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Robert Richmond
Robert Richmond

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Four days after a faulty Matson pipe discharged 233,000 gallons of molasses into the waters at Honolulu Harbor, marine biologists say the environmental disaster is causing significant damage to the coral reef.

"Inside the harbor is just mass mortality.  The corals are dead.  The invertebrates are dead," described Robert Richmond, a University of Hawai'i at Manoa Marine Biology and Ecotoxicology Professor.

Prof. Richmond, who works at Kewalo Marine Laboratory, says healthy coral reefs should be vibrant and buzzing with activity, but Honolulu Harbor is the exact opposite after the Matson molasses spill.  Richmond says fellow researchers from the lab went underwater yesterday and witnessed corals losing their color and tissue.

"They have little unicellular algae that live inside that basically make them solar powered, so they're losing their major source of energy, but in addition, the coral's just simply dying flat out," explained Richmond.

Richmond says the change in the chemistry of the water is causing their cells to break.

"That's one of the reasons why I think we're seeing the fish, the corals and a lot of the invertebrates dying as quickly as they are – their cells are basically blasting out, coming down," described Richmond.

Experts say it will likely get worse before it gets better, as the plume from the molasses tracks west with the current.

"Things that were stressed yesterday will probably be dead by Monday," Richmond explained, adding that coral reefs are generally resilient – if you can stop the acute disturbance, they can typically rebound.

Richmond's lab is providing scientific support to the Department of Land and Natural Resources to find solutions on how to contain the damage and create a plan to prevent this from happening again – an important role given how vital the coral reefs are to Hawai'i's economy, culture and ecosystem services, all three of which have been compromised and damaged by this event.

"There was a study done in Hawai'i that shows the coral reefs have about $360 million a year value to the local economy," said Richmond. "Our oceans here really are the goose that's laying the golden egg.  People come here to be able to snorkel, swim, fish, see the incredible beauty," Richmond explained, adding even people who don't regularly use the ocean need to know that it's healthy.

"The ecosystem services have actually been valued at $3 billion – meaning that the protection that these reefs give against tsunami waves, against coastal erosion is a dollar figure that we can never engineer anything as effective as our reefs, and in order for them to work, they have to be healthy," said Richmond.

Richmond says the cultural significance of the coral reef system also can't be ignored.

"The corals are basically the foundation of what we call the essential fish habitat.  The reason why the fish are there and the other marine organisms is because of the coral reef, they provide the structure.  Everything starts with the corals and certainly in Hawai'i in a creation chant – the corals are even recognized there – so there's a long cultural history along with the economic and the ecological," said Richmond.

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