Rescuing the Reef

Experts from Maui Ocean Center are researching and restoring Hawai‘i coral in the face of natural disasters and global warming.

Text by Sonny Ganaden | Images by IJfke Ridgley

“We get all sorts of responses when we ask visiting school kids what they think coral is; if it’s an animal, a plant, or a mineral,” says Jim Luecke, assistant curator at the Maui Ocean Center. The center—which is home to several aquariums featuring the same endemic ocean life that is found within its surrounding 10-mile radius, as well as a café, a restaurant, a wet lab, and a learning center—fronts the harbor at the south end of the perennially windy Ma‘alaea Road. “Really, it’s all of those things,” Luecke tells the students. He can’t blame the kids for not knowing what coral is, as even brilliant scientists across the tropics are still attempting to determine the complexity of coral reef ecosystems. Global tropical waters are the equivalent of barren deserts on land, low in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus—in them, reefs are oases, teeming with life. Corals are, in fact, tiny animals, with even tinier plants living inside them. The reef consists of countless generations of dead dead coral topped by a layer of alive coral, creating a form of geologic mineral and habitat that protects the shore from the ravages of the sea, and is the essential terrain of the ecological web of underwater tropical life. “Hawai‘i may be one of the last, best places to do continuing coral research,” Luecke says, “because ocean warming and acidification isn’t as bad here as it is in other parts of the world.”

Marine biologist and Maui Ocean Center’s head curator John Gorman with coral growing at the center’s wet lab.

Marine biologist and Maui Ocean Center’s head curator John Gorman with coral growing at the center’s wet lab.

As coral experts operating under the direction of head curator and marine biologist John Gorman, the staff at Maui Ocean Center have been growing their own coral since the center’s opening in 1998. Over the last five years, the team has put that expertise to use in collaboration with the Hawai‘i Department of Natural Resources, performing coral research, recovery, and relocation projects. As a result of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that originated in Tōhoku, Japan, piers across the Hawaiian Islands, including those at Lāhainā Small Boat Harbor, Moloka‘i Harbor, and Ma‘alaea Harbor, required repair and rebuilding. Decades of reef, which had grown around the pilings, needed to be chiseled off prior to the reconstruction. The center was tasked with the removal and relocation of live coral within these harbors.

Harvesting coral is difficult and dangerous work, a mix of construction demolition and something akin to underwater basket weaving. From 2013 to the present, while the three Hawai‘i harbors were under full use, Maui Ocean Center experts used hammers and chisels to break off decades of coral growth from the pilings, and then transported them to other parts of the reef or to the facility in haste. The work at Lāhainā Harbor was particularly difficult, as boats motored overhead, and surfers on both sides of the harbor mouth caught waves. The center maintained a curatorial and scientific instinct when documenting the process, tagging each piece retrieved. After years of tracked growth in the lab, the center’s team “planted” some of the coral on the reef near the piers. They used a process that resembles underwater tiling, employing marine epoxy and a wire brush to remove any algae, sediment, or debris before an hour-long “babysitting” period in which the lab-grown coral sets.

Finger coral and honeycomb coral at Maui Ocean Center’s Shallow Reef exhibit.

Finger coral and honeycomb coral at Maui Ocean Center’s Shallow Reef exhibit.

This prolonged effort has ramifications for the peoples of the Pacific. Coral science is still developing in labs around the world, where experts are attempting to determine the mechanisms for the survival of reefs as the world’s oceans continue to warm and acidify. Reefs around the world are estimated to be home to anywhere from one million to nine million species. In Hawai‘i, 20 to 25 percent of coral types are unique to the islands, and the reefs are a major component of the economy via fishing, tourism, and ocean sports. Without these thriving reefs, the islands’ ecology—and the lifestyles that go along with them—will change forever.

The important scientific work taking place at Maui Ocean Center is contrasted by the joy found at its location, a venue reminiscent of the convivial aquatic park that employs Adam Sandler’s character in 50 First Dates. When we speak, Luecke is monitoring a tourist and a staff diver in the large tank as a variety of toddler-sized sharks encircle them. Remembering a line from the movie, I ask him jokingly if “the sharks only bite when you touch their private parts?” He responds by asking if I’d like to see the wet lab.

An array of corals harvested from Hawai‘i waters are nurtured at Maui Ocean Center with LED lighting and a slurry made of brine shrimp.

An array of corals harvested from Hawai‘i waters are nurtured at Maui Ocean Center with LED lighting and a slurry made of brine shrimp.

The wet lab, not accessible to the public unless one is participating in a tour, is the heart of Maui Ocean Center. Within it, fluorescent lights create a neon nightclub scene, and buckets of brine shrimp being grown to feed the coral bubble with aerating tubes. Here also, an estimated 640 pieces of coral from pilings grow on gridded trays in tanks. Lights and the brine shrimp promote the rapid growth of coral species, like rice, sandpaper rice, corrugated, and lace coral, and even a species of mushroom coral the curators may have discovered during the project. As a result of the success of Maui Ocean Center’s work on Maui, both Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i Island counties are looking to fund similar projects.

“Before this project, the harbormasters just considered all this coral attached to the pier as a form of bio-fouling,” Luecke says. “We’re not just educating kids here. We’re trying to show boaters, fishermen, surfers, and everybody else about the ecosystem right underneath them.”

Maui Ocean Center is located on Highway 30 at Ma‘alaea Harbor. For more information, visit mauioceancenter.com.

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