By Carolyn Lucas
Source: West Hawaii Today 
Coral reefs are rapidly declining, suffering and nearing death worldwide. A requiem for these complex, productive ecosystems is not yet needed on the Kona Coast and many want to keep it that way.
Eager to conserve coral reefs and ensure the Big Island's appeal as a visitor destination, more than 20 people attended the first four-day Coral Reef Alliance workshop, "Coral Reefs and Sustainable Marine Recreation," Wednesday at King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel. Marine recreation operators and participants took one of the greatest challenges facing scientists today -- finding innovative ways to reverse rapid decline of reefs. They discussed strategies to incorporate best environmental business practices, how to turn conservation into a marketing tool, as well as the emerging issues in tourism and reef degradation.
"This is a coral reef destination," said Rick MacPherson, marine biologist and program director of Coral Reef Alliance. "We can argue all day whether it's a sustainable one. The goal is to identify the threats locally, develop a plan and work toward sustainability."
Sustainable tourism is often viewed as an oxymoron. Organization of Eastern Caribbean States defines it as the optimal use of natural and culture resources on an equitable and self-sustaining basis to provide a unique visitor experience and an improved quality of life through partnership among government, private sectors and community organizations.
"It's not we who manage the reef," said Teresa Nakama of Kahu O Kahiko and West Hawaii Fisheries Council. "It's managing us."
According to State of the Reefs, 70 percent of coral reefs in 2004 were under imminent risk of collapse through human pressures or are under a longer threat of a collapse. The Hawaiian Islands comprise 85 percent of all coral reef areas under United States jurisdiction.
The deterioration is more than an aesthetic problem; it is a serious environmental and economic issue, MacPherson said.
Snorkeling, diving and other marine recreation activities in Hawaii generate approximately $800 million in gross revenues and employ about 7,000 people in more than 1,000 businesses. Kona Coast reefs generated approximately $17.7 million a year. A survey in the Caribbean found divers were willing to pay $25 annually to keep the archipelago's reefs healthy. The West Indies government had the potential to make $90 million yearly with the implementation of a fee, MacPherson said.
Coral is an animal, mineral and "oasis in an oceanic desert." Biological productivity of a reef is 50-100 times greater than in the surrounding waters because there is tight nutrient protection, recycling and healthy alga production. These ecosystems provide biodiversity, storm protection and medicine, MacPherson said.
"Reefs serve as a buffer, protecting inshore areas from pounding ocean waves," he said. "Without coral reefs, many beaches and buildings would become vulnerable to wave action and storm damage. Some coastlines were spared during the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia because of healthy reefs."
Millions who live in the tropics rely upon reefs as a significant source of protein as well as a part of the ecosystem given spiritual and cultural value. Reef animals and plants contain medical compounds, many of which are just being discovered. About 50 percent of cancer medications are derived from marine organisms that live on coral reefs. The most notable is AZT, from a Caribbean reef sponge, that is used to treat HIV infections, MacPherson said.
"Trashing coral reefs is like throwing the medicine cabinet away," he said. "It's throwing away the fragile creatures that have the potential to cure diseases."
To better protect reefs, MacPherson said integrated coastal zone management must be used. The concept is simple: Healthy systems depend on healthy parts. It includes associated watershed and near shore communities.
The public must provide short- and long-term incentives alongside community involvement, expand parks to protect multiple ecosystems, fund management practices, as well as establish and manage Marine Protected Areas. Marine recreation operators should strive for a triple bottom, meaning a profitable, environmentally sound and socially responsible business, MacPherson said.
If you go
- What: Coral Reef Alliance workshop, part two
- When: April 24-25 from 5:30-8:30 p.m.
- Where: King Kamehameha's Kona Beach Hotel
- Speakers: Sara Peck of the University of Hawaii Sea Grant, Jan Ostman-Lind of The Nature Conservancy and Betsy Morrigan and Geoff Hand of Kayak Association of the Islands.
- Admission: Free.
- Contact: Liz Foote, Hawaii field representative email@example.com .