Monday, June 15, 1998

Coral specialists check
Hanauma Bay

They are impressed with
protection efforts but find
the in-shore area trampled

By Helen Altonn


Coral specialists checking out Hanauma Bay's condition were impressed when they swam past the reef and saw eight turtles.

"It was almost unbelievable," said Charles Birkeland, with the University of Guam Marine Laboratory.

In 28 years in the tropics, he said, he has never seen such tame sea turtles. "Protection has done a service."

About 15 scientists went snorkeling in the bay's rough, murky waters Friday with manager Alan Hong. They were among about 100 marine experts attending an international workshop here last week to help the state form a coral-reef management plan.

Hong had a lot of questions for the group assessing Hanauma Bay, asking how their data can help him better manage the popular submerged park and Marine Life Conservation District.

Visitors trampling on the reef and feeding fish are hurting the in-shore environment, but the area outside the reef looks healthy, the specialists found.

"Overall, they were very happy with what we are doing there," said Alton Miyasaka, state marine biologist. He heads a Department of Land and Natural Resources team focusing on Hanauma Bay as one of 25 fragile natural resource "hotspots" statewide.

"The reef in a lot of ways is better than what they have in the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Red Sea," Miyasaka said. "But I think it's a stretch to say it's better than the Great Barrier Reef."

Australian scientists Hugh Sweatman and James Oliver, involved with the Great Barrier Reef, said Hanauma looks good beyond the reef, although it has fewer species of coral.

Oliver doesn't think the bay needs to be closed to the public more often than Wednesday mornings, as it is now, but advises keeping "a careful eye on the total numbers (of visitors) and use."

Perhaps some small portions of the bay should be kept free of snorkelers to allow the coral to grow, he said.

The bay has about 46 species of coral and more than 400 species of fish in-shore and outside the reef, Miyasaka said.

"There is practically no live coral growth inside of the reef," he said.

"Is that only the cause of trampling, or water temperature, or some other factor?"

Miyasaka said the greatest impact seems to be from visitors -- walking on the reef, using suntan lotion that gets into the water, leaving rubbish and feeding the fish.

The adverse effects have been reduced somewhat since regulations were imposed in 1990 to control the number of people in the bay and their activities, he said.

A proposed regulation also is being reviewed by the attorney general's office to prohibit feeding fish, Miyasaka said. Feeding sandwiches, cheese, potato chips and other food people eat has changed the bay's marine community and degraded the water, he explained.

Salim Al-Moghrabi, University of Jordan marine researcher, suggested setting aside an area for a "living animal land" where children could plant coral pieces on the reef and watch them grow. They then would become stewards of the reef, he said.

He said politicians must be convinced that coral reefs should be saved, not just because they're beautiful animals but because they're important to the marine community and humans.

Corals can be used for human bone grafts, to extract toxins for diseases and protect against ultraviolet rays from global warming, Al-Moghrabi noted.

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