HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One month after 233,000 gallons of molasses spilled into Honolulu Harbor, researchers have learned a little more about its impact on the coral and underwater ecosystem, but studies are ongoing to determine the full scope of damage.
"We know that there's significant numbers of dead coral down there," said Frazer McGilvray, the administrator for the Division of Aquatic Resources.
Experts say the extent of the damage and the potential for recovery after the molasses spill appears dependent on the coral ecosystem.
"What we've seen is substantial injuries to corals of various species below the water," McGilvray described.
Officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, who are heading the assessment phase, have identified a key species of coral they're using as an indicator of damage, but say it's too early to know the full scope.
DLNR has partnered with researchers at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory for answers.
"The lace corals have been almost completely killed off and when we saw them initially they were bleaching. The follow-up studies show that all the ones that bleached did eventually die, so we're talking about hundreds of coral colonies at minimum," described Bob Richmond, a Research Professor at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Marine Lab.
Richmond says samples indicate the water quality of the Harbor has returned to its pre-spill environment, but he cautions that coral health and resurgence are critically dependent on conditions of the ocean floor as well.
More than 26,000 fish were killed in the aftermath of the Matson molasses spill. Without them, marine biologists say the ocean floor is quickly being taken over by fleshy algae – making it impossible for the next generation of coral to settle.
"Corals and coral reefs are a very big part of the local culture, of our local environment – and when we lose them we lose economic, cultural and ecological value," said Richmond.
Scientists just finished a two week experiment in which they exposed coral to various levels of concentrated molasses to determine what amount kills them off and what renders them incapable of functioning. The statistics will help officials create new policies and response plans for the otherwise un-regulated product.
"There's no question about it – substantial resources that are important to the people of Hawai'i and the world were lost as a result of this," Richmond explained.
DLNR diving teams will continue to monitor both Honolulu Harbor and Ke'ehi Lagoon, but just how long the assessment phase lasts will depend on what they find.