Use penalties to limit harm to reefs


POSTED: Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The state has been frustrated in the past trying to penalize tour companies for damaging coral reefs off the main Hawaiian islands, but hefty fines it has begun to impose should serve to limit the harm. The Lingle administration has recognized the importance of the reefs to the state's environment and economy, and tour companies should be scared enough to respond accordingly.

Scientists convening at a symposium last year in Florida released a study concluding that reef fish are disappearing from coral reefs in Hawaiian waters. While most of Hawaii's reefs are in the pristine Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, declared a national marine monument in 2006 by President George W. Bush, the 15 percent around the populated islands is at risk.

Experts say the coral reefs are under pressure from sediment in runoff, overfishing and invasive algae. The risk is expected to grow from the effects of global warming, raising levels of carbon dioxide in ocean waters.

The state issued its first fine for breaking coral in June 2007, ordering a Lahaina-based company to pay $7,300 for illegally entering a natural area reserve and breaking 11 coral specimens. Prior to that, the state had preferred to merely educate offenders about reefs and have them contribute to the cost of restoration.

Last year's Legislature gave the state authority to impose larger fines. Maui Snorkel Charters has begun paying $396,000 in a settlement and has returned its tour boat to the waters. Another tour operator faces penalties for illegally dropping an anchor onto a Maui reef, causing breakage of coral.

In supporting the bill, Laura H. Thielen, chairwoman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, called the coral reefs the “;signature ecosystems of the Hawaiian Islands,”; sacred to native Hawaiians and “;the backbone for a large part of the state's vibrant marine tourism industry.”;

Referring to the fines since them, Thielen told the Associated Press, “;People are going to have to be more careful out here, because if it keeps getting damaged, we're going to lose it. We have to take some very strong action or else it's going to be too late.”;

Those people include the Navy, which is repairing a $1 billion cruiser, the USS Port Royal, which ran aground near Honolulu Airport in February, wrecking coral over a 6- to 10-acre area. The warship dumped 7,000 gallons of waste water to prevent endangering the crew.

The state Department of Health said it lacked jurisdiction to fine the Navy. However, the state plans to seek compensation from the Navy for the ruined coral. The Navy has spent more than $7 million to repair reef damage, with defense contractors reattaching about 5,400 coral colonies and removing 250 yards of rubble.