WEST MAUI - For some local and state leaders, Saturday, May 31, began with a special tour of West Maui's most precious natural and economic resource: our coral reefs.
Participants - a "who's who" from within area government, hotel management and other sectors critical to Hawaii's future - donned snorkel gear to explore both healthy and stressed reefs at Olowalu and within the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area (KHFMA).
The leaders also learned how businesses, non-profits and agencies are coming together to protect these vital ecosystems.
Mark Deakos of the Hawaii Association for Marine Education and Research discusses the ecology of Olowalu reef as the group prepares to snorkel at the site. PHOTO BY LIZ FOOTE.
Participants included County Councilors Don Couch, Elle Cochran and Mike Victorino; State Sen. Roz Baker; Maui County Executive Assistant for Environmental Concerns Rob Parsons; Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair William Aila Jr.; and Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement Maui Branch Chief Matt Yamamoto.
Hosted by Trilogy Excursions and coordinated by the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative and state Division of Aquatic Resources, the half-day charter aimed to educate decision-makers about the values of, and threats to, reefs and to engage them in developing ideas for continued and enhanced collaboration.
When not underwater, participants learned about reef ecology, cycled through learning stations on some of the more technical aspects of conservation and management, and even checked out a virtual reef- a three-dimensional online reef developed by ReefQuest.org and its 15-year-old founder, Dylan Vecchione.
"This was an invaluable opportunity for those who make decisions affecting our natural resources every day to join us on and in the water to see what's happening to our reefs first-hand. Most importantly, the platform provided a chance to explore solutions together in a fun and informal setting and learn from each other's expertise and experience," CORAL Hawaii Field Manager Liz Foote said.
Cochran, County Councilwoman for West Maui, was impressed by the turnout of government representatives and other community leaders with diverse backgrounds, noting, "I've never seen that happen before - such a wonderful meeting of the minds, where we have all gathered together to learn about our reefs and share solutions."
She added, "How many of our decision-makers literally get into the ocean to see our reefs with their own eyes? This was an amazing opportunity, and I know it makes a difference for me personally to engage in conservation solutions after having this first-hand perspective to see the impacts of our activities, rather than just viewing photos or presentations."
State and federal agencies have identified two watersheds within West Maui as priority areas for reef stewardship. The KHFMA is within one of those watersheds, and it represents a new and crucial strategy for protecting reefs: protect the herbivorous fish that feed on potentially harmful algae.
These priority areas are being managed through a multi-partner effort - the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative - that incorporates holistic resource management at the watershed level.
Opportunities like this tour can inform, inspire and engage local leaders, strengthen efforts currently underway and provide much hope for Hawaii's coral reefs, Foote concluded.
Working with people around the world - from fishermen to government leaders, divers to scientists, Californians to Fijians - the Coral Reef Alliance protects our most valuable and threatened ecosystem. Visit www.coral.org to learn more.