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Hawaii coral recovery efforts progress as Trump pulls support from Paris accord

Updated: 
June 2, 2017 - 12:05am

KAILUA-KONA — President Donald Trump’s decision Thursday to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord will hamper efforts to stem global warming throughout the world — the primary cause of rising ocean temperatures that pose the single greatest threat to Hawaii’s marine ecosystems.

Responsible for more CO2 emissions than any country save for China, the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement was met with dissension not only from some within Trump’s own administration but also from environmental activists, business leaders across the country and political leaders across globe.

Scientists in Hawaii also balked at Trump’s move, saying the state will not escape the subsequent ripple effect as it works to mitigate environmental impact to coral reefs on the heels of back-to-back years of coral bleaching in 2014 and 2015, the latter of which was part of the third global bleaching event in history.

“If we don’t solve the global emissions (problem) … everything that we do on reefs is substantially harder,” said Thomas Oliver, ocean acidification program manager with the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. “The Paris accord so far represents the best international response we’ve ever had to deal with the problem.”

Dr. Bill Walsh, West Hawaii aquatic biologist for the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, said concerns extend beyond a departure from the Paris agreement to the administration’s general attitude toward climate change and the federal agencies tasked with combating it.

“Even apart from the Paris accord, if the withdrawal or rather the attack of the administration on scientific organizations (like) NOAA or the Environmental Protection Agency — we work hand in hand with them,” he said. “A lot of our ability to effectively monitor the reefs over these years has been due to money the state gets directly from NOAA. We’re all sort of intertwined here.”

Walsh and Oliver each helped develop the Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan, a detailed report synthesizing input from international and local experts along with relevant scientific literature on the problem.

Released in March after roughly a year of work, the strategies the report recommends revolve around establishing networks of no-take Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Herbivore Fishery Management Areas (HFMAs).

Strategies also include spatial management of coral reef areas with inherent resiliency to bleaching or a high potential for recovery from bleaching. The final recommendation involves increased enforcement.

“We chose specifically to focus on recovery,” Oliver said. “Assuming the hits are going to come, how do we set up our reefs to deal with those hits and bounce back as fast as we can?”

There is an urgency surrounding implementation, as both Oliver and Walsh said the back-to-back bleaching events of 2014-15, which resulted in the death of nearly 50 percent of West Hawaii’s corals, are expected to become the norm within two decades.

But Oliver said that’s no reason to lose hope — not yet, anyway — even if the strategies aren’t implemented immediately.

“Ecology is not an all or nothing thing. It’s not a switch that is either on or off,” he said. “Coral can take a lot. They can take really hot conditions, but only some of them can and they need time to recover. I think we will get substantial return on this effort.”

The next step in the process involves a spatial modeling project to determine areas where implementation will be most effective while minimizing cultural and social cost.

Anne Rosinski, marine resource specialist with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative and a primary author of the report, said the computer modeling process will focus on herbivore management and areas where limiting or eliminating their take would be especially beneficial.

Herbivores, particularly parrotfish, are crucial to reef health as they consume algae that otherwise render reef recovery precarious following bleaching events.

Rosinski said identifying areas with characteristics of bleaching resilience, which are also dealing with issues of macro algae and overfishing of herbivores — parrotfish, sturgeon fish and urchins, among others — will allow strategic measures to achieve maximum effectiveness.

“The point of resilience-based management is to give our reefs the best shot of recovering from the effects of climate change,” Rosinski said. “We won’t stop climate change by protecting herbivores, but we’re going to give Hawaii’s reefs the best chance of being resilient to the effects until things change.”

Computer modeling will also incorporate stakeholder input as its purpose is to maximize protection while minimizing forms of cost. Those forms of cost have not yet been specifically defined but may include impacts to the fishing industry or cultural practitioners.

Spatial mapping to determine the appropriate networks of MPAs and HFMAs should be completed by the end of 2017, with reports to follow.

The final stage is state implementation of the selected measures in the selected areas. Walsh said that will involve the structured Hawaii administrative rule making process, comprised of meetings, discussions, public hearings, and various approvals from boards and government officials.

It’s a process that can range from several months to several years, depending on community advocacy and opposition.

Walsh said the network approach of spatial management will ease logistical problems and mitigate the challenges of enforcement on the part of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“If you have complex rules where you inspect what people are doing or have to know what people are doing everywhere, it gets very complex,” he said. “What we try to make clear is that sometimes the collective necessity will have to outweigh what is best for a few people.”

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