$25M initiative to restore health of Hawaii’s coral reefs

For 30 years, Greg Asner has used high-tech satellite, airborne and in situ techniques to measure the extent of Hawaii’s land and coral reef problems.

Now, he is transitioning to the next stage of his scientific journey.

Arizona State University on Monday announced a new $25 million initiative to protect and restore Hawaii’s declining coral reefs.

“I finally had the support to turn diagnostic work into action,” said Asner, who led the project and became director of ASU’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Science five years ago.

While the project is titled “Ako’ako’a,” it expands the diagnostic work even further, and it will primarily focus on interventions designed to help Hawaiian corals survive as climate change threatens the destruction of the world’s reefs.

Currently, the project will be working on a 120-mile-long coral reef on the west side of Hawaii Island, one of the largest coral colonies in the Hawaiian Islands.

“It’s the largest single reef on the island. It’s longer than the entire coastline of Kauai,” Asner said.

The funding will also help pay for a new state-of-the-art coral research and breeding facility known as the Ridge to Reef Restoration Center in Kailua-Kona.

The center, located at the state’s Hawaii Ocean Technology Park, is being built in partnership with a land restoration group called Terraformation. When complete, the center will be the world’s largest coral nursery, capable of housing 300,000 coral colonies at a time and as many as a million a year, Asner said.

The state Lands and Natural Resources Board last week approved a memorandum of agreement making the state Department of Aquatic Resources a partner in the effort.

DAR administrator Brian Neilson said the initiative represented “a powerful path to the future”.

“Restoring and enhancing our coral reefs requires a fusion of stewardship, stewardship and high-tech science. ‘Ako’ako’a will be a prime example of this hybrid process in West Hawaii,” Nielsen said in a statement.

Asner said the project will focus on three general areas: preventing pollution from land-based sources; reducing overfishing of coral reefs; and using science to help reefs be more resilient in the face of warming seas, ocean acidification and coral bleaching caused by climate change. elasticity.

All three areas have contributed to the continued decline of Hawaii’s coral reefs.

In 2020, Asner’s lab produced the first detailed map of nearly all inshore coral reefs on the main island of Hawaii. Flying a turboprop twin-engine aircraft, the scientist deployed a laser-guided imaging spectrometer to take pictures of coral reefs as deep as 50 feet.

The resulting study found that widespread decline and degradation was directly linked to onshore development, overfishing and increased water heat waves.

Western Hawaii’s reefs have lost two-thirds of their reef fish in the past 15 years, a reflection of coral degradation, Asner said

The most worrying impact on the future of corals is ocean warming. Hawaii experienced severe bleaching in 2015 and 2019, and NOAA predicts annual heat waves through 2040.

With El Niño already underway, 2023 could be another devastating year for Hawaii’s corals, Asner said.

While the reefs in West Hawaii are “in much better shape than the ones on Oahu, they’re in much worse shape than they were when I was a kid,” he said. “We have to try to intervene now, before we lose too much. We have to prepare for a warmer climate.”

The Ridge to Reef Restoration Center will be a hub for testing corals and new propagation techniques designed to make them more resistant to warmer waters.

An estimated 3 million to 4 million corals are broken each year by storms, anchor damage, ship groundings and other causes, Asner said. These broken corals are dying now, but they can be preserved for experimentation, propagation and replanting in nearshore waters, he said.

The largest portion of the “Ako’ako’a” ​​fund — $15 million — was donated by the Dorrance family and the Dorrance Family Foundation. Members of the Dorrance family live in Arizona and the Big Island. Additional funding came from the office of US Senator Brian Schatz, the state Department of Aquatic Resources, NOAA and ASU.

It’s the latest in a string of recent moves aimed at restoring Hawaii’s coral reefs.

In April, NOAA announced funding for two projects — $9 million to restore and create a coral nursery near Waikiki, and $8 million to use traditional ridge-to-reef ahupuaa tactics against Maunalua Bay and its environs habitat degradation.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Hawaii’s School of Marine and Earth Science and Technology and the Applied Research Laboratory are creating a part-artificial, part-natural coral reef structure for Oahu’s Windward Coast in a project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

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