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Hawaiian Coral Reefs Worth $34 Billion

A new study reveals Americans feel the total economic value of Hawaii’s coral reef ecosystems is an estimated $34 billion annually. Now that’s a valuable resource—equal to the market value of ESPN, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the fabulous (yet fictional) Dr. Carlisle Cullen, according to Forbes magazine.

Coral ecosystems provide recreation and tourism opportunities, protect coasts from storms, and are home to many fish and wildlife species. The American public has made it clear that coral reefs are worth protecting and restoring for future generations. Understanding the economic value of our natural resources is vitally important for weighing the costs and benefits of NOAA’s investments to protect and restore them. Below are some examples of NOAA funded coral restoration projects in Hawai’i.

“Super Sucker” Vacuums Invasive Algae off Hawaii’s Coral Reefs

One of the greatest threats to Hawaii's coral reefs is invasive algae. To combat this problem, The Nature Conservancy of Hawai’i developed a barge-based underwater vacuum device, known as the "Super Sucker." We partnered with The Nature Conservancy to use the Super Sucker to restore native coral reef habitat in Kane'ohe Bay and Maunalua Bay on the island of O'ahu.

Operating the Super Sucker requires divers to navigate and suction algae underwater using a long hose. The algae are then pumped to the deck of the barge, where scientists sift pull out native species to return to the reef. This innovative method can remove up to 800 pounds of algae per hour. It has allowed for very effective and efficient restoration compared to manual removal efforts along the shoreline. The alien algae are then used on land as fertilizer by local taro farmers. To date, more than 10 tons of algae have been removed from Hawaii's reefs and nearshore habitat.

Maunalua Bay Reef Restoration—Good for Nature & the Community

Maunalua Bay, Hawai'i, faces three major threats to its habitat: land-based sediments and pollutants, unsustainable fishing practices, and invasive algae. Thanks to $3.4 million in Recovery Act funds and a partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the local community was able to remove 22 acres of algae—that’s more than 2.5 million pounds!

The project helped create or retain 75 jobs, engaged local businesses and five local farmers, with 100 percent of the algae recycled into compost. In addition, 3,000 community members and 12 schools contributed a total of 7,000 hours of community service to restoring the reef. The restored sand bottom and hard limestone habitat will enable seagrass expansion and coral recruitment throughout the bay.

Clearing the Water in Hawaii’s Kane'ohe Bay

Traditional Hawaiian farming techniques are helping to clear the water in Hawaii’s Kane'ohe Bay. Thanks to a program called “Ho’opa’a Ka Lepo,” or “hold back the dirt,” started by the Papahana Kuaola organization, bay water quality is getting better. The farming techniques reduce runoff from O'ahu’s streams into the bay and, thus, protect its coral reefs from excess sediment.

In ancient Hawaiian culture, lo’i (or irrigated pond fields) were used to grow taro, a staple of Hawaiian cuisine. Traditionally, farmers would divert only enough water from nearby streams to water their crops, leaving enough for nearby farms to do the same. These systems trap sediment runoff as it flows by and then slowly release it. This prevents excess sediments and nutrients from overloading the bay and ocean downstream.

While tourists expect to see clean, clear water when they visit, local residents know what happens during heavy rains—the water turns brown from excess runoff.  When too much sediment flows into the bay, it can bury coral and reduces the light and food that can reach them.

The NOAA Restoration Center funded this project with its partner, the Hawai’i Community Foundation. The project uses volunteers—including many who are involved through the Hawai’i Community Work Day program—to remove invasive species and plant the lo’i fields. Eventually, four acres of taro will be planted, and students and teachers will help collect data on erosion and the amount of sediment in the water.

Posted October 21, 2011