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Pile of Algae
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"Most people don’t understand what’s going on underneath the bay, that there’s a problem here. The good news is that we know how to fix it, and we really just have to work together to do that."
The Conservancy’s Hawai'i Director of Marine Conservation
For years, Kāneʻohe Bay has been under assault from aggressive invasive algae that smother and kill coral reefs. To halt the spread and keep the algae from escaping outside the bay, The Nature Conservancy built and launched a second Super Sucker underwater vacuum last fall. The results in the first year were impressive.
“Working in tandem with the State Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), we have removed almost 250,000 pounds of invasive algae from more than 20 acres of reef in just one year,” says Suzanne Case, the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi executive director. “And all of the algae have been given to local farmers to use as fertilizer and compost.” (To watch on video on the Kāneʻohe Bay "Reef Revival" project, click here.)
To keep the algae from growing back, DAR raised 200,000 native sea urchins at its Anuenue Fisheries Research Center, and released them onto the bay’s reefs, where they eat the small pieces of algae left behind by the Super Suckers. “On reefs where we have placed the urchins, algae re-growth after a year is about five percent,” says Dr. Eric Conklin, the Conservancy’s Hawai‘i marine science director. “On reefs without urchins, algae can re-grow within six months.”
More Urchins Needed
The issue now is that the Super Sucker operations are getting ahead of the urchin production.
“We definitely need more urchins,” says Dr. Conklin. “The native collector urchin, Tripneustes gratilla, is found naturally in the bay, and prefers eating invasive algae over native species. But there are currently far fewer urchins in the bay than there should be naturally.” The State hopes to produce and release more than 200,000 urchins in 2014.
Another key to restoring the bay’s health involves identifying and understanding the factors that have changed it from a productive ecosystem into one choked by sediment, nutrients and alien species.
Restoring an Ahupua'a
The sea urchins and Super Suckers are part of a larger effort to restore cultural and ecological health to the Heʻeia ahupuaʻa (traditional land division running from the mountains to the sea). Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz, the Conservancy’s Kāneʻohe Bay marine coordinator, is working with our community partners at Paepae o Heʻeia, Kakoʻo ʻOiwi, Papahana Kuaola, the Hawaiian civic club, and a range of volunteer organizations, farmers and government agencies to restore the natural, cultural, and agricultural resources of the He‘eia ahupua‘a.
Together, we are actively restoring fishponds, taro lo‘i , agricultural lands and the adjacent wetlands to provide local food security and reduce the amount of sediment and fertilizers flowing into Kāne‘ohe Bay and fueling the growth of invasive algae. According to Kanekoa, “Together we have cleared 10 acres of former pasture lands, and are re-creating the rich, productive land that once served alongside a healthy bay to feed the people of Kāne‘ohe and the island of O‘ahu.”
“By growing taro, restoring the loʻi and raising fish, we are re-creating the famed ʻāina momona, meaning fat or rich land,” he adds. “The Nature Conservancy is working with the families and supporting the community to improve Heʻeia—and in turn improve Kāneʻohe Bay.”
A Community Effort
Already, the restoration effort has reached several thousand students and families through work days, projects and presentations addressing the challenges facing Kāne‘ohe Bay and the community’s role in helping meet those challenges. Activities range from community algae pulls at the Paepae o Heʻeia fishpond, to clearing taro lo‘i and planting taro with Kākoʻo ‘Ōiwi, to an Earth Day art contest at Windward Mall that reached more than 800 windward students, and a compost giveaway that benefitted more than a dozen windward farmers.
This past summer, nearly 2,000 children from the Kamaʻaina Kids program “adopted” a Kāneʻohe Bay reef, helping to remove invasive algae, deliver it to farmers for composting, and restore native sea urchins. Meanwhile, at Heʻeia State Park, Eagle Scouts have turned an old boat into a “touch tank” that allows children to see native sea urchins up close and learn about the role they play in restoring the bay.
“Community involvement is vital for a successful outcome,” says Director Case. “And so, too, is raising the funds needed to complete the project.” When the Conservancy launched our Campaign to Restore Kāne‘ohe Bay in 2012, our goal was to raise $2.5 million over three years. Thus far, we have raised more than $2.4 million—thanks in large part to a $500,000 challenge grant from the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, which was matched by donations from many individuals, local businesses, charitable foundations, and government partners. We now need your support to raise the final $65,000, and realize our goal of clearing 60 acres of reef by 2015.
“Kāneʻohe Bay provides so much to so many people,” says Kim Hum, the Conservancy’s Hawaiʻi director of marine conservation. “You look out here and it’s just beautiful. Hundreds of people use the bay every day. But I think most people don’t understand what’s going on underneath the bay, that there’s a problem here. The good news is that we know how to fix it, and we really just have to work together to do that.”