On Friday, June 3, a special charter hosted by Trilogy Excursions, affectionately dubbed the "Boatload of Decision Makers," departed from Lahaina Harbor with a passenger list that included local business leaders, State House and Senate lawmakers, state and county officials, nonprofit representatives, state and community resource managers, and cultural practitioners.
Brought together by partners within the West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, the event provided a unique educational platform along with the opportunity to experience Maui's reefs firsthand with an array of experts.
"Having state legislators, county officials and potential policymakers assembled for a first-hand look at our fragile marine ecosystem is important," said Sol Kaho'ohalahala of the Maunalei Ahupua'a Community Managed Makai Area, who presented the pule at the beginning of the charter.
"It is important that they see mauka-makai as a single unit reliant on each other for good health, resilience and abundance, not separated by political jurisdictions. It is vitally important that we deepen our collective efforts for the betterment of our ocean, islands and home."
Liz Foote, executive director of Project S.E.A.-Link, added, "The value of an experience like this is not just having the chance to see firsthand what's happening to our reefs, but to engage with one another and explore solutions. This event helped us move forward collaboratively, with a more hopeful and optimistic message, to address the threats to reefs."
Mike Gabbard, Senate Land, Water and Agriculture Committee chair, and Ryan Yamane, House Water and Land Committee chair, said that it's important for lawmakers to take the time to get away from the capitol, to see first-hand how land-based pollutants and unsustainable fishing practices are killing coral reefs.
"We need to make sure other policymakers, our colleagues, are aware of the situation and that they understand what is happening," added Sen. Gabbard. "I would love to get all lawmakers out here, as we are not doing enough to protect reefs, the foundation of our ocean. We need to put our money where our mouth is!"
Rep. Yamane was struck to see how runoff and land-based contaminants are killing reefs, thus diminishing fish and aquatic life populations.
"It saddens me that we have these places dying off in our ocean so close to home," he said. "We, as a state, need to take a more active role in protecting these coral colonies. I'd like to see a balance of not only building roads for cars, but let's also build reefs so our fish and aquatic life can thrive."
Local threats to reefs include land-based pollution and unsustainable fishing practices. Global threats include these as well as warming ocean temperatures, all of which stress corals and lead to coral bleaching, disease and ocean acidification.
Five watersheds within West Maui have been designated by the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force as priority watershed areas for reef stewardship. The West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative and West Maui Kumuwai Campaign are efforts aimed at reducing the impacts of land-based pollution to our near shore reefs.
Attendees onboard the Trilogy Excursions catamaran were briefed with numerous presentations and interpretive materials about the reefs. However, trading in their business suits for swimsuits, the highlight of the day was snorkeling on two reefs, Kahekili and Olowalu, in West Maui.
These reefs were chosen because of the differing stories they tell, both cautionary and hopeful.
"Seeing the reefs up close shows the habitats' health and threats to their ecosystems," said Darla White, Division of Aquatic Resources special project coordinator, who led the two in-water tours of the sites. "It is an opportunity to understand what it takes to ensure that the reefs thrive for generations to come."
"In the past seven years, we have seen a surprising amount of early success reflected in the increases in the herbivorous fish population plus habitats showing signs of resilience," White explained. "We were excited to share this data with those on board."
"Olowalu is a unique reef in that it is the largest reef on Maui that comes up to the shoreline with massive coral colonies estimated to be hundreds of years old," White said. "Data from the U.S. Geological Survey indicate that this reef is seeding the reefs of West Maui, Molokai and Lanai, and has been coined the 'Mother Reef.' "
Both Kahekili and Olowalu reefs have a variety of human stressors, and both suffered from the bleaching event last year to different degrees. The group onboard the Trilogy vessel shared an engaging dialogue about the many ways that the public can help our reefs to be resilient to ensure their longevity.
"The take-home message," White concluded, "is that we need to reduce the local stressors, the things we can control, in order to help reefs to be as healthy and resilient as they can possibly be, so that they can deal with the global stressors. Hopefully, we can all do our part to help the reefs adapt to the environmental changes that are coming and to ensure their longevity for future generations."
For those looking to learn more and get involved in reef stewardship in West Maui, a community event known as the "Ridge to Reef Rendezvous" will be held on Saturday, July 23, from 9 a.m. to noon at Kahekili Beach Park in Kaanapali. For more information, visit www.WestMauiKumuwai.org.